By Andrew Cohen
The advent of small-town police departments obtaining sophisticated military weapons and equipment has become a hot-button national issue. In a new TED Talk now available online, Assistant Clinical Professor Catherine Crump describes the lesser-known yet also perilous advances in law enforcement surveillance equipment.
“Most people don’t realize that NSA-style mass surveillance is enabling the police in our hometowns to collect large quantities of sensitive data that could never previously have been gathered at this scale,” said Crump, associate director of the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic. “Records of people’s movements can be very sensitive. Where you’ve gone can reveal if you have visited a therapist, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, or casinos…This information used to be private.”
TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan foundation that seeks to spread thought-provoking ideas through often short talks by “the world’s most inspired thinkers.” Five to seven new talks are posted online each week.
Crump, who gave her talk in October at a TED conference in Rio de Janeiro, is a TED Fellow. She also recently won Stanford Law School’s Miles L. Rubin Public Interest Award as a graduate who has advanced justice and social change in the lives of vulnerable populations.
Crump’s talk describes how automatic license plate readers have become a dominant mass location tracking technology. Positioned near roads or on police cars, the readers snap photos of passing license plates.
“If license plate readers were just used to locate the bad guys, no one would object,” Crump said. “But, increasingly, police are collecting such information in dragnet fashion from every car that passes by a plate reader and storing it indefinitely—leading to truly massive databases tracking the location of broad swaths of the American public.”
License plate readers constitute just one tracking technology used by modern-day law enforcement. Data dumps from cell towers enable agents to identify revealing location information about thousands of people. In addition, devices called stingrays let police transmit signals through the walls of homes to determine if any cell phones are inside.
“Technology has allowed the state to learn far too much about what happens behind closed doors,” Crump said. “And police officers make decisions about who they think you are based on this information.”
Police departments can maintain this information at a low cost, and gather data points into massive databases. The Drug Enforcement Agency is reportedly constructing a National License Plate Reader System with a database fed by devices from many jurisdictions across the country.
Crump’s talk cited examples of how such surveillance can raise concerns. In New York, unmarked police cars with license plate readers have driven around local mosques to record each visitor. In Great Britain, an 80-year-old retiree had his license plate number put on a watch list after he attended political demonstrations—to sketch those protesting. Closer to home in San Leandro, Mike Katz-Lacabe reviewed his own license plate records from the police and saw scores of photos, some of which showed he and his two daughters getting out of his car in their driveway.
“Mr. Katz-Lacabe hasn’t been accused of any crime,” Crump said. “Yet the government is storing hundreds of photos of his vehicles. Why is that okay?”
In giving such broad surveillance power to law enforcement, Crump warned of the vast potential for abuse. She urged more checks and balances to curtail the impact of tracking technologies.
“Past experience would suggest that the question is not whether, but when, such data will be misused: for political advantage, blackmail, or simple voyeurism,” Crump said. “The right of privacy isn’t just about individuals and how they control their personal information. It’s about an increasingly skewed balance of power between civil society and the state—and it’s time to correct that balance.”