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.
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.
“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.
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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, 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.”
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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.”
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.”
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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.
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.”