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TEDGlobal 2014

Catherine Crump: The small and surprisingly dangerous detail the police track about you

October 14, 2014

A very unsexy-sounding piece of technology could mean that the police know where you go, with whom, and when: the automatic license plate reader. These cameras are innocuously placed all across small-town America to catch known criminals, but as lawyer and TED Fellow Catherine Crump shows, the data they collect in aggregate could have disastrous consequences for everyone the world over.

Catherine Crump - Attorney + privacy advocate
Catherine Crump is an assistant clinical professor at Berkeley Law School who focuses on the laws around data and surveillance. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
The shocking police crackdown
on protestors in Ferguson, Missouri,
00:13
in the wake of the police
shooting of Michael Brown,
00:17
underscored the extent to which advanced
military weapons and equipment,
00:20
designed for the battlefield,
00:24
are making their way
00:26
to small-town police departments
across the United States.
00:27
Although much tougher to observe,
00:32
this same thing is happening
with surveillance equipment.
00:34
NSA-style mass
surveillance is enabling
00:37
local police departments
to gather vast quantities
00:40
of sensitive information
about each and every one of us
00:43
in a way that was
never previously possible.
00:47
Location information can
be very sensitive.
00:51
If you drive your car around
the United States,
00:54
it can reveal if you go
to a therapist,
00:57
attend an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting,
00:59
if you go to church
or if you don't go to church.
01:01
And when that
information about you
01:04
is combined with the same information
about everyone else,
01:06
the government can gain
a detailed portrait
01:09
of how private citizens interact.
01:12
This information used to be private.
01:14
Thanks to modern technology,
01:17
the government knows far too much
about what happens behind closed doors.
01:19
And local police departments make
decisions about who they think you are
01:23
based on this information.
01:27
One of the key technologies
driving mass location tracking
01:30
is the innocuous-sounding
Automatic License Plate Reader.
01:35
If you haven't seen one,
01:38
it's probably because you didn't
know what to look for --
01:40
they're everywhere.
01:43
Mounted on roads or
on police cars,
01:44
Automatic License Plate Readers
capture images of every passing car
01:47
and convert the license plate
into machine-readable text
01:52
so that they can be checked
against hot lists
01:55
of cars potentially wanted
for wrongdoing.
01:59
But more than that, increasingly,
02:02
local police departments
are keeping records
02:04
not just of people wanted for wrongdoing,
02:06
but of every plate that
passes them by,
02:10
resulting in the collection
of mass quantities of data
02:12
about where Americans have gone.
02:16
Did you know this
was happening?
02:19
When Mike Katz-Lacabe asked
his local police department
02:21
for information about the plate
reader data they had on him,
02:25
this is what they got:
02:28
in addition to the date,
time and location,
02:30
the police department had
photographs that captured
02:33
where he was going and
often who he was with.
02:36
The second photo from the top
is a picture of Mike and his two daughters
02:39
getting out of their car
in their own driveway.
02:43
The government has
hundreds of photos like this
02:47
about Mike going about his daily life.
02:50
And if you drive a car
in the United States,
02:52
I would bet money
that they have photographs
02:55
like this of you going
about your daily life.
02:57
Mike hasn't done anything wrong.
03:00
Why is it okay that the government
is keeping all of this information?
03:02
The reason it's happening is because,
03:06
as the cost of storing
this data has plummeted,
03:08
the police departments
simply hang on to it,
03:11
just in case it could be useful someday.
03:14
The issue is not just that
one police department
03:18
is gathering this information in isolation
03:20
or even that multiple police
departments are doing it.
03:23
At the same time, the federal government
03:26
is collecting all of these
individual pots of data,
03:28
and pooling them together
into one vast database
03:32
with hundreds of millions of hits,
03:35
showing where Americans have traveled.
03:37
This document from the
Federal Drug Enforcement Administration,
03:39
which is one of the agencies
primarily interested in this,
03:42
is one of several that reveal
the existence of this database.
03:45
Meanwhile, in New York City,
03:49
the NYPD has driven police cars
equipped with license plate readers
03:52
past mosques in order to
figure out who is attending.
03:56
The uses and abuses of this technology
aren't limited to the United States.
04:00
In the U.K., the police department
04:04
put 80-year-old John Kat
on a plate reader watch list
04:07
after he had attended dozens of
lawful political demonstrations
04:11
where he liked to sit on a bench
and sketch the attendees.
04:15
License plate readers aren't the
only mass location tracking technology
04:20
available to law enforcement agents today.
04:24
Through a technique known as
a cell tower dump,
04:26
law enforcement agents can
uncover who was using
04:29
one or more cell towers
at a particular time,
04:32
a technique which has been known to reveal
04:34
the location of tens of thousands
and even hundreds of thousands of people.
04:36
Also, using a device known as a StingRay,
04:41
law enforcement agents
can send tracking signals
04:44
inside people's houses
to identify the cell phones located there.
04:47
And if they don't know
which house to target,
04:51
they've been known
to drive this technology
04:53
around through whole neighborhoods.
04:55
Just as the police in Ferguson possess
high-tech military weapons and equipment,
04:59
so too do police departments across
the United States
05:03
possess high-tech surveillance gear.
05:06
Just because you don't see it,
05:09
doesn't mean it's not there.
05:11
The question is, what should
we do about this?
05:13
I think this poses a serious
civil liberties threat.
05:16
History has shown that once the police
have massive quantities of data,
05:19
tracking the movements of innocent people,
05:23
it gets abused, maybe for blackmail,
maybe for political advantage,
05:25
or maybe for simple voyeurism.
05:30
Fortunately, there are steps we can take.
05:32
Local police departments can
be governed by the city councils,
05:34
which can pass laws requiring the police
05:38
to dispose of the data
about innocent people
05:41
while allowing the legitimate
uses of the technology to go forward.
05:44
Thank you.
05:47
(Applause).
05:49

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Catherine Crump - Attorney + privacy advocate
Catherine Crump is an assistant clinical professor at Berkeley Law School who focuses on the laws around data and surveillance.

Why you should listen

Catherine Crump is a civil liberties lawyer whose work focuses on combating government surveillance and protecting the free speech rights of political protesters. She has filed cases challenging the NSA and the Department of Homeland Security. Crump is an assistant professor at Berkeley Law School; previously she was an attorney for ACLU for nine years.

In her writing for the ACLU, Crump warns against the dangers of national mass surveillance technology, which can all too easily end up as tools for local police forces. She writes, "Not only our country as a whole, but also the police, will be better off in the long run if we have an open debate about what today’s technology can do, versus what it should do."

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