MONTPELIER — Senate lawmakers offered a ringing endorsement Wednesday for a bill intended to protect personal privacy in the face of technological advances.
With a unanimous vote Wednesday afternoon, the Senate gave preliminary approval to a bill intended to limit the way law enforcement can use technology ranging from drones and license plate readers to cell phones and computers to gather information on people.
“Together, they do a thing we think is important, which is reinvigorate the conversation about how to protect individuals personal and private lives at a time of rapidly expanding technology,” said Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden of the provisions within the bill.
Ashe noted how the concept of privacy has changed during the last 25 years, recalling when a person sending a letter would be “almost guaranteed” nobody would read it aside from the intended recipient, compared with privacy breaches today that lead to disclosure of email.
Ashe also noted high-tech companies that are using satellites to photograph every inch of the planet.
“The days of having a fence block off your back yard are gone,” Ashe said.
While the bill does not address satellites, it does place limits on law enforcement’s use of unmanned aerial devices, or drones, to gather information. Except in the case of emergencies, police would have to apply for a warrant to use a drone to gather information on a person or property.
The bill would also make it a crime — a misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison — for a private person to mount a weapon on a drone.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, asked if a municipality would need a warrant for a zoning enforcement officer to see if a person was building without a permit.
Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia — who co-sponsored the bill, along with Ashe and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington — said a zoning enforcement officer would fall within the the realm of law enforcement as defined in the bill.
The bill would require police to get a warrant to access what the bill defines as a person’s “protected user information,” which includes the contents of email and their subject lines and user GPS location data.
However, police would only need a subpoena to access what the bill refers to as “subscriber information,” which includes billing information and a user’s Internet protocol address.
The bill offers exemptions, however, such as if police think there is imminent risk of death or serious injury, or if a phone is found in the possession of a prison inmate.
During the past week, Senate Judiciary Committee members stripped out a provision of the bill that would have allowed a person to file a civil suit if his or her medical records are improperly disclosed.
“We agreed that provision was perhaps not fine-tuned in a way that would protect medical practices from inadvertent disclosures,” Ashe said.
Benning said the bill is the first step in an ongoing conversation about protecting privacy as technology continues to advance.
“Technology is moving so fast we are playing legislative catch-up,” Benning said.
Senate lawmakers are expected to give final approval to the bill Thursday.