Vermonters are living in a vastly different world than they did just a dozen years ago, speakers at the ACLU-VT surveillance conference said Wednesday, and the difference is the constant surveillance we are all subjected to.

William Arkin William Arkin interviewed by Alicia Freese of VT Digger (left) and Nancy Remsen of the Burlington Free Press at Wednesday's surveillance conference.

Lead speaker William Arkin, a military and national security expert who lives in Pomfret, said the challenge the country now faces revolves around a central question: “What are the new rules for information systems going to be in this age of networks?”

Arkin said Edward Snowden’s revelations of the scope and scale of National Security Agency data collection were “cataclysmic” for the agency’s massive vacuuming of personal information about Americans. The country is finally being forced to decide whether such surveillance is justified and acceptable to citizens.

Because much of the surveillance is conducted through examination of digital data collected automatically on each of us, we have largely been unaware of how much the government and private companies know about us.

But such vast amounts of personal data are being amassed on a continuing, routine basis that it’s possible to build profiles of an individual and determine where she goes, whom she talks to or e-mails, what she likes to eat, and what searches she does on the Web.

Arkin alluded to the premise of his most recent book, American Coup – that America has two governments, the familiar “ABC” government of a Congress and a Constitution and a between-the-lines “XYZ” government that is beyond the reach of Congress, the courts, and the people.

“You are free to say what you want, believe what you want, assemble where you want, as long as you don’t violate invisible limitations and barriers or interfere with the workings of the XYZ,” Arkin notes.

Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst with the National ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told the conference that policymakers need to see, in an upfront and personal way, the negative privacy implications policies have before they understand why people don’t like their privacy invaded by high-tech tools or police systems.

Speakers and panelists at the conference pointed out that a “national surveillance state” was being constructed before 9/11. Law enforcement has been able to tap directly into the nation’s telecommunications system since 1994, for example.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the wars first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, were seized upon by government to expand its use of surveillance in tracking identified and potential terrorists. But the new dragnets the government has laid out catches information about everyone – whether suspected of committing or planning a crime, or just going about their everyday lives.

Wednesday's conference was a further exploration of the report issued by the ACLU-VT this year on Constitution Day, Surveillance On The Northern Border.