Q & A about ‘Big Brother’ in Vermont

People are wondering about drones, snitches, and bills numbered 666

By Guy Page

Concerns about “Big Brother” watching Vermonters have been popping up in social and traditional media ever since March 13, when Gov. Scott signed Executive Order 1-20 declaring a State of Emergency. Here are several examples of their concerns, and what’s actually happening. 

Are police using drones for surveillance? No. At a recent press conference a reporter asked if (as is happening in other states) police are using drones to monitor social distancing. The answer was an emphatic “no,” the same response Vermont Daily received from Vermont State Police spokesperson Adam Silverman to this April 21: 

Vermont law (Title 20, chapter 205) says “a law enforcement agency shall not use a drone or information acquired through the use of a drone for the purpose of investigating, detecting, or prosecuting crime…..(b)(1) A law enforcement agency shall not use a drone to gather or retain data on private citizens peacefully exercising their constitutional rights of free speech and assembly.” However, the powers of the executive expand considerably during a SOE. Are state police using, or prepared to use, drones to monitor activity forbidden by the executive orders – including but not limited to political gatherings, activity in parks and on trails, and patronage of local businesses?

Silverman, a veteran editor/reporter at the Burlington Free Press before going to work for the State Police, gave a firm, one-word answer: “No.” 

Are citizens informing on fellow citizens? Yes. Vermonters concerned about others’ lax personal protection and social distancing are reporting supposed infractions are another matter. They’re ratting to both police and to the media. Today’s VT Digger reports on the numerous emails it has received from concerned citizens. Apparently this behavior is intertwined with their fear of death. Editor Colin Meyn quotes a social psychologist Liz Pinel: 

“I do think that that has a lot to do with…why people are calling who are not following social distance guidelines. Because we’re living in a time when mortality is incredibly salient for people,” [Pinel] added. “This is what we need to do to be good members of our worldview, and people who aren’t doing that are challenging our belief system and they are sort of laughing at it, and that makes us feel more vulnerable.”

Pinel pointed out that Covid-19 showed just how quickly rules for good behavior can change, and the lengths people will go to maintain our psychological “dam” holding back the terror. “You know, and if other people are saying, ‘Well, no, we don’t have to do that.’ Then that is, that’s like a little hole, a little leak, in your dam that you need to stop.”

To police, Vermonters have complained about their neighbors via the Vermont State Police Executive Order Reporting Tool. As of  April 17, 130 people had used the tool to make complaints, referred to in a Caledonian-Record editorial as a “rat line.” The current number is unknown. A question emailed today to the Vermont State Police received this response: “You can send a request for information under the public records act to Department of Public Safety Records & Alarms Administrator Heidi Storm by email at heidi.storm@vermont.gov.” Asked the same question at the governor’s press conference today, Gov. Phil Scott and his officials also did not have the answer but promised to provide it.

Is the press being controlled? No. Absolutely not. If anything state officials have been more responsive than ever. Gov. Scott has set the tone by meeting with the press three times a week for up to two hours a session, answering with relevance and grace the questions posed by a score of reporters. Administrators and legislators also have been even more forthcoming than usual, perhaps because they, too, are moored to their computers and check their email frequently.

Will protective facial masks become mandatory? Probably not. Will the State of Vermont mandate the wearing of masks in public? Gov. Scott made it clear today he is not in favor of mandating masks – at least not right now. “If we’re having difficulty with compliance rates, we’ll take more steps,” Scott said. “But that’s not my preference.” Nationwide, mandates seem to put people at odds, he said. But he added that “if the Legislature decides to take additional steps to make this mandatory….that’s their prerogative as well.”

There’s nothing on the weekly legislative committee schedule specifically about masks. However the House and Senate health care committees will hold a joint hearing via Zoom Tuesday at 10 AM to discuss “an act relating to a health care emergency State plan.” Stay tuned. Many grocery stores already require shoppers to wear masks. Guidelines for reopening the economy also require some employees to wear masks. 

Is the government considering oversight legislation numbered 666? Yes. (But does it matter?) This sounds like an internet rumor, but it’s not. Whether the number is of any significance is a matter of opinion. Two recent federal bills calling for more government oversight include the sequence of 666 – the number signifying an oppressive world government’s “Mark of the Beast” in the Book of Revelation. On May 1 a Democrat-led bill, HR6666, was introduced seeking $100 billion for the current fiscal year “to conduct diagnostic testing for COVID–19, and related activities such as contact tracing, through mobile health units and, as necessary, at individuals’ residences, and for other purposes.” Rep. Peter Welch was not a co-sponsor.

Already 17,000 people have signed a petition opposing HR6666 hosted on the petitions page of the White House website. The private citizen who created the petition laments, “This Act will allow government officials to enter ANYONE’S HOME and force Test them for COVID-19/ and or antibodies. Then the government officials would have the right to remove children from the home/ remove anyone testing positive from the home, etc.”

HR6666 does not yet appear as an incoming bogey on the ACLU’s radar screen. Instead, the national organization’s Covid-19 focus is on releasing inmates, pushing for voting-by-mail, and protecting abortion rights. 

A 2017 Republican-sponsored bill, HR666, to “identify, prevent, mitigate, and respond to insider threat risks to DHS’s critical assets,” passed the U.S. House but died in the Senate. In the current Vermont Legislature, H666 would also increase government power, but in a less sinister way: it would allow judges to hold without bail people arrested for DUI with death or bodily injury of another resulting. 

Vermont State Police photo of one of 11 drones used for search-and-rescue and other non-surveillance purposes.