1. News
  2. /
  3. Business

License plate cameras may be watching your Tampa Bay neighborhood

Atlanta-based Flock Safety has provided 14 area communities with high-speed, high-definition cameras for surveillance.
A company called Flock Safety is selling automatic license plate readers to neighborhood associations to cut down on crime, and Tampa neighborhood Paddock Oaks is one of their customers. Pictured is a Flock camera on Paddock Oaks Dr. | [Luis Santana | Times] [LUIS SANTANA  |  Times]
A company called Flock Safety is selling automatic license plate readers to neighborhood associations to cut down on crime, and Tampa neighborhood Paddock Oaks is one of their customers. Pictured is a Flock camera on Paddock Oaks Dr. | [Luis Santana | Times] [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Sep. 20

RIVERVIEW — Just before midnight over Labor Day weekend, two men in a Nissan 370z pulled onto Paddock Oaks Drive and stopped in front of the first house on the block.

In under 10 minutes, one man got out of the vehicle, removed the tailgate of a Ford pickup truck sitting in the driveway, and left. A neighbor’s home security system caught the moment.

Identifying the men might have taken significant legwork, but an automatic license plate reader positioned at the entrance of the community captured key evidence. Two weeks later, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office made two arrests.

Paddock Oaks is one of 14 Tampa Bay communities that have signed on with Atlanta-based Flock Safety to provide high-speed, high-definition cameras for surveillance. It’s a new twist on a technology that companies have historically sold to law enforcement, repossession companies or toll operators. And it may be coming to a neighborhood near you.

A company called Flock Safety is selling automatic license plate readers to neighborhood associations to cut down on crime, and Riverview neighborhood Paddock Oaks is one of their customers. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

The license plate footage in Riverview was “very, very important for us to make the arrest because it helped us to be able to identify who the vehicles belonged to,” said Joseanett Diaz-Sanchez, spokeswoman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.

Flock, one of the first companies to market the technology to neighborhoods, touts the incident as a success.

RELATED: When can police compel you to give up your cell phone password?

“We are a crime-solving company,” said Joshua Miller, Flock spokesman. “We want to help everybody of any kind deter would-be criminals.”

But privacy advocates say the cameras amount to a dragnet surveillance network put in place without public discussion, carrying a significant potential for abuse and monitoring of innocent people, especially by law enforcement.

* * *

License plate readers capture every plate that passes in front of them. They use machine learning to turn a photo of a license plate into a line of code that is stored in a searchable database. Typically, they are used to enforce tolls and parking, but are increasingly used by law enforcement to find vehicles of interest.

Flock, which was founded in 2017, markets them to neighborhoods in 33 states as a way to tamp down on nonviolent crime.

Their cameras are placed at the entrances and exits of participating neighborhoods. Residents of the neighborhood can volunteer their license plate numbers so the cameras can distinguish between people who live there and those just visiting, and residents have the option of having their footage deleted immediately instead of having it uploaded to the company’s cloud storage. Flock charges around $2,000 per camera annually, and the neighborhood owns the footage — not Flock.

The company stores the footage for 30 days, a much shorter period than competitors, which often store the data indefinitely. This, spokesman Miller said, was a conscious choice to ensure the data is not misused.

“Privacy is as concerning to us as other people,” Miller said.

Flock declined to disclose which Tampa Bay neighborhoods it has cameras in or how many cameras are in use. It does, however, give police departments a list of available cameras.

Bill Staley, president of the Paddock Oaks Homeowners’ Association, became interested in the system when a neighbor who works in consumer electronics mentioned it to him. His neighborhood’s camera is placed at the sole entrance, attached to a pole at least 12 feet high.

“We were pretty much sold based on the fact that it’s able to pick up a license plate in the dark,” he said. “The technology is amazing.”

James Carey, a resident of Paddock Oaks had his tailgate stolen recently from his truck. Using a combination of home surveillance footage from his neighbor's house and two license plates captured on the Flock Security camera in his neighborhood, he was able to report the crime to detectives leading to two arrests. James poses for a portrait in front of his home by his truck that had the tailgate stolen. [LUIS SANTANA | TIMES | Tampa Bay Times]

James Carey, who owns the truck whose tailgate was stolen, initially thought the camera was intrusive.

Now, he said, “I think it’s a great idea. ... I think 99 percent of your day you’re on camera and filmed anyway. The cameras are everywhere. It’s just another one.”

While customers own the data, Miller said the company has the technical ability to access footage if needed, and its privacy policy allows it to hand over information to law enforcement if it believes the footage is related to a crime. It can also retain the footage indefinitely for this purpose, though Miller said the company has not done so.

Q&A: A-Lign CEO Scott Price talks cybersecurity compliance and the local workforce

* * *

Privacy advocates consider the technology invasive. One of the primary concerns for Nathan Wessler, attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, is the potential to surveil an innocent individual’s movements over a period of time.

“This technology allows the recording of people’s most private patterns of movement,” he said, “whether it’s to the doctor’s office or the lover’s house.”

Wessler works on the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, which examines the use of and privacy issues with surveillance technology, such as license plate readers. He sees the greatest potential for abuse when law enforcement interacts with the footage.

For Flock, law enforcement can interact with the technology in two ways: Request footage from neighborhoods that use Flock, or contract directly with Flock on installing cameras. No Tampa Bay law enforcement agencies currently contract with Flock. Of the 100 law enforcement agencies Flock partners with around the country, just one — in Florida City — is in the state. Flock is, however, “looking to expand outward through Florida.”

These warning signs are posted in the Riverview neighborhood of Paddock Oaks, which uses the Flock Safety automatic license plate readers. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Law enforcement agencies that have partnerships with Flock receive alerts within minutes if a recorded license plate shows up on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s National Crime Information Center database, a shared listing of fugitives, missing people, stolen property, violent or wanted people, sex offenders and those on supervised release. Police that contract with the company can also create custom “hot lists” for cars they are looking for.

Several privacy issues crop up when a neighborhood is in control of the footage. For one, there’s the potential for discrimination by unduly focusing on someone because they don’t live in a given neighborhood.

“Every contact with law enforcement that is unnecessary carries risk,” Wessler said. “Those risks are particularly acute for people of color.”

Then there’s which neighborhoods have access to the cameras. The cost may be prohibitive for less affluent neighborhoods. Flock spokesman Miller said there is at least one instance where police have stepped in and contracted with Flock for a neighborhood. Even that may not be as benevolent as it might seem, Wessler said, as that means the residents are being watched and may not have had a say in getting the product.

Incorrectly identifying or flagging a license plate also is a possibility.

“There’s a real temptation by law enforcement and the public to see these computerized surveillance systems as being unfailing and inherently accurate,” Wessler said, “when in fact, they’re not.”

* * *

Because the residential use of license plate readers is relatively new, many scenarios haven’t been tested yet.

One of the largest concerns is how easily police are able to access footage. According to Flock, each camera has a limited number of people authorized to access it, and giving the information to police is voluntary. Before police are allowed to request footage (even if they directly contract with Flock), the agencies are required to suspect there is a possible crime, Flock said. But there isn’t necessarily a burden of proof beyond that, as Flock doesn’t require a significant explanation of the suspected crime and relies on customer complaints of any misuse of data.

“If police are using it with nefarious purposes, we will end that contract and take our equipment back,” Miller said. To date, the company has not found an instance of this.

A company called Flock Safety is selling automatic license plate readers to neighborhood associations to cut down on crime, and Riverview neighborhood Paddock Oaks is one of their customers. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Joe Giacalone, a professor at the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that the license plate readers can be a boon to crime stopping. But, they should come with backstops, such as limited access, a way to monitor for misuse and transparency about such policies when police are involved.

Wessler points out that the cameras do not stop, sleep or take breaks, and the volume of information they collect is unique.

“It’s not a great solution to say this neighborhood can consent to turning over data about tons of people who haven’t consented to being surveilled,” Wessler said.

Maj. Robert Ura, who works for Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, said he understands privacy concerns, but doesn’t see the cameras as any different than someone standing outside photographing license plates in public.

“I think in 2019 and beyond,” Ura said, “if you’re not aware that you’re under surveillance of one kind or another — Ring cameras, driveway cameras, traffic cameras — then you’re probably a little naive.”


  1. The Sears in Brooksville, as shown in this captured image from Google Maps, will close next year. [Google]
    The store’s parent company had already announced the area’s last Kmart in Pinellas also is closing.
  2. Tampa is among the most friendly pet-friendly cities for renters. Pictured is downtown Tampa. [Times file photo] [Tampa Tribune]
    According to’s recent analysis, nearly 60 percent of rentals on its site in Tampa are pet friendly.
  3. Meridian Concourse Center in Clearwater. [Avison Young]
    The Meridian Concourse Center consists of three buildings.
  4. Tech Data CEO Rich Hume (left) shares a moment with his predecessor, Bob Dutkowsky, during a send-off celebration for Dutkowsky on June 7, 2018 at the company's 
 headquarters in Largo. At the time, Tech Data had already received the first in what would become a series of purchase offers from New York-based private equity giant Apollo Global Management. Along the way, Dutkowsky would play a key role in negotiations with Apollo. JIM DAMASKE   |   Times (2018)
    Apollo Global Management has been trying to buy Tech Data for a year and a half. Along the way, four other companies were interested, too. Two made offers.
  5. At the request of a state lawmaker, Citizens Property Insurance Co.’s board is again bringing in an outside evaluator to help the insurer decide if and how to cull its policyholder base. Pictured is  Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg) (left) and Barry Gilway, CEO of Citizens. [Courtesy of Sen. Jeff Brandes and Citizens Property Insurance Co.]
    At the request of St. Petersburg Sen. Jeff Brandes, the insurer will look for ways to shrink.
  6. In addition to offering groceries through Prime Now, Amazon has just launched Amazon Fresh in Tampa Bay. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
    The online retailer branches out beyond the Whole Foods’ organic products it already offers.
  7. Pinellas County Commission chairwoman Karen Seel said a Tampa economic development group's recent decision to put "Tampa Bay" into its name "does great harm to the progress we have made on regional collaboration."
    But in Tampa, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit, government-supported economic development group is giving no sign of backing off the new name.
  8. This holiday season could be a record for travel. According to AAA, the Auto Club Group. Pictured is traffic on the Bayside Bridge in Clearwater in October. [Times file photo] [CHRIS URSO  |  Times]
    According to AAA, the Auto Club Group, more Americans are traveling this year than previous years.
  9. Yankee pitcher CC Sabathia, who played 19 seasons before injuries ended his career this fall, greets children attending the Yankees holiday concert at the Straz Center in Tampa on Thursday. Sabathia was joined by his wife Amber, right. [New York Yankees]
    Long-time host and retired news anchor John Wilson passed the torch this year to a new emcee, his son Mark Wilson.
  10. NewSouth Window Solutions has a factory and its headquarters near Tampa, seven factory showrooms around Florida and in Charleston, S.C., and an eighth scheduled to open early next year in the Pensacola-Mobile, Ala. market. [LensLife Productions]
    The buyer is PGT Innovations and wants to expand. NewSouth has a factory in Tampa and eight showrooms, with a ninth on the way.