Last year, in an interview with the news weekly Seven Days, the director of operations at the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles said a new high-tech facial recognition system bought with a $900,000 grant from the federal Department of Homeland Security would not be used for law enforcement purposes. Well, a year later, the director, Michael Smith, says "things have changed" and the high-tech drivers' license photo system is indeed being utilized to help police departments in police investigations.

WCAX online story on DMV system WCAX online story on DMV system

That’s according to a story WCAX’s Kristin Kelly did Tuesday. She reported: “Smith now says that that (Seven Days) interview was nearly a year ago, before the system started and that things have changed since then.”

(The interview was reported by Seven Days staffer Ken Picard and published July 16, 2012 on the paper’s Blurt, or Staff Online, Blog.)

At a time when revelations about the National Security Agency’s pervasive surveillance system are coming out, we’re learning Vermont officials have no problem adapting their new system so it can be used as a 24/7 police line-up of every Vermonter who has a driver’s license.

Done nothing wrong? Why worry?

Here's why we should all worry: We live in a society with a Constitution that guarantees we’re innocent until proven guilty. We are not guilty until proven innocent. We have a right not to be suspected of a crime if there’s no evidence we’ve committed one. Vermont police or NSA analysts cannot troll through personal information about us without suspicion we’ve done something wrong. They can’t seize any of our “papers and effects” without a warrant from a court.

What the DMV incident illustrates is that – just as with the NSA surveillance -- there is no effective public oversight of many of the “big data” systems that government is building. Our state government gets Homeland Security funds to build a system that’s supposed to be used for issuing driver’s licenses but is suddenly also being used for something else. No one knew, until a reporter – familiar with the Seven Days interview from last year -- asked.

In that 2012 interview, DMV Director Smith also said that the new DMV database “will not be linked to databases in other states or the federal government.”

Will that promise to Vermonters be kept? Or will “times change,” and without our knowledge or consent our photos will be dumped into other databases and used for whatever purpose the operators of those systems want?

One more irony: While there’s plenty of money to buy a high-tech facial recognition system for the DMV, there’s not enough money to buy a basic digital reporting system for the Secretary of State’s Office – a system that would allow us to track money flowing through Vermont political campaigns.

This doesn't speak well for transparency.