License Plate Reader Company Continues Expansion Into Private Neighborhoods With The Help Of Some Useful Cops

from the location-tracking-at-affordable-price-points! dept

The use of automatic license plate readers by law enforcement has steadily increased over the past decade. The theory is a never ending documentation of vehicle movements results in more solved crimes and recovered stolen vehicles. Assertions about law enforcement efficiency have driven other tech acquisitions, ranging from repurposed war gear like Stingray devices to facial recognition software.

But there’s another force at work, one driven by private companies and aggressively marketed to private parties. Ring, Amazon’s doorbell/camera acquisition, has driven its growth by portraying daily life as inherently unsafe — a portrayal aided by its partnership with hundreds of law enforcement agencies, who often act as an extension of its marketing department.

Another growth market in the private sector relies on what’s normally considered to be law enforcement tech: license plate readers. Flock Safety sells plate readers to gated communities and homeowners associations, promising peace of mind to residents who often have nothing to be worried about. Residents in low crime areas are told crime is headed their way. And people inherently suspicious about anyone they don’t immediately recognize were more than happy to inflict surveillance tech on anyone passing through their neighborhoods.

But Flock, like Ring, isn’t just for those who’ve kept up with or surpassed the Joneses. Flock has managed to make inroads into less spectacular neighborhoods, giving residents access to a wealth of plate/location data that is often shared with local law enforcement.

With “safety-as-a-service” packages starting at $2,500 per camera a year, the scanners are part of a growing wave of easy-to-use surveillance systems promoted for their crime-fighting powers in a country where property crime rates are at all-time lows.

Once found mostly in gated communities, the systems have — with help from aggressive marketing efforts — spread to cover practically everywhere anyone chooses to live in the United States. Flock Safety, the industry leader, says its systems have been installed in 1,400 cities across 40 states and now capture data from more than a billion cars and trucks every month.

This is a private company selling products to private individuals with unproven claims about increased safety — and it all ties into surveillance systems operated by law enforcement.

Piped into a neighborhood’s private Flock database, the photos are made available for the homeowners to search, filter or peruse. Machine-learning software categorizes each vehicle based on two dozen attributes, including its color, make and model; what state its plates came from; and whether it had bumper stickers or a roof rack.

Each “vehicle fingerprint” is pinpointed on a map and tracked by how often it had been spotted in the past month. The plates are also run against law enforcement watch lists for abducted children, stolen cars, missing people and wanted fugitives; if there’s a match, the system alerts the nearest police force with details on how to track it down.

This may sound like a good and responsible use of surveillance tech. But it isn’t. The system makes suspects of anyone who passes through a neighborhood while a crime is being committed. And if no one knows exactly when a crime was committed, hours of plate captures expand the list of suspects. When that happens, those running the cameras will be left to their own biases to generate their list of most-likely suspects and that’s the information that’s going to make its way into the hands of law enforcement.

Flock Safety believes it can solve all kinds of problems, even though decades of policing have yet to generate appreciable progress. Flock’s founder, Garrett Langley, says law enforcement isn’t capable of solving these problems on its own, pointing to FBI crime stats that show a 17 percent clearance rate for property crimes. He may be right that not enough is being done, but these systems aren’t the panacea he claims they are. This statement in particular seems insanely optimistic.

“Are we going to stop homicides? No, but we will drive the clearance rate for homicides to 100 percent so people think twice before they kill someone,” he said. “There are 17,000 cities in America. Until we have them all, we’re not done.”

Good luck. The national clearance rate on homicides hovers around 50 percent. In some cities, it’s far lower than the national average. More information is always helpful, but privately owned camera systems only add to the false positive/false negative problem, and private-side bulk collections being turned over to law enforcement is a pretty problematic “solution.” Tech like this also tends to nudge people towards vigilantism, something that’s been observed with Ring’s Neighbors app and Citizen’s privately run crime reporting tool.

Then there’s the marketing push that now directly involves law enforcement agencies, which tends to put cameras where cops feel they should be put, with the expected results.

When Flock installed 29 cameras in Dayton, Ohio, as part of a months-long trial for the police, residents were surprised and angry to see so many of them recording in the heart of the city’s Latino community — including outside a church where local immigrant families attend Mass and gather with friends.

It’s just more of the same, but enabled by private companies that see law enforcement support as an easy way to expand their market base. Flock blamed this incident — the surveillance of minorities frequently targeted by law enforcement — on a “gap in communication.” The company provided no details on what it told police when it gave them cameras that may have been misinterpreted by law enforcement. The cameras were ultimately removed after the targets of the surveillance complained.

Flock isn’t going to give up its expansion plans. And cops really haven’t found a camera system they don’t like, not even body cameras which have done far more for them than they’ve done for the public. Like Ring, Flock appears willing to use public servants as PR reps and installation techs. And its expanding user base allows it to become part of a mesh network of surveillance tech that blurs the line between what the government does to us and what we choose to do to each other.

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Comments on “License Plate Reader Company Continues Expansion Into Private Neighborhoods With The Help Of Some Useful Cops”

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Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

Really Amazing

FBI crime stats that show a 17 percent clearance rate for property crimes

What is amazing is that no one is stealing these cameras. If they are indeed showing up in “bad” areas, you would think the locals would be particularly likely to take them. And, at 17% clearance, the odds of figuring out who snuck up on the back side of the camera ought to be disheartening.

TaboToka (profile) says:

Re: Really Amazing

What is amazing is that no one is stealing these cameras.

Thank you fellow person, you have just provided the missing piece of my business plan:

  1. Steal cameras and reset their serial numbers
  2. Tell folks in places that look like Main Street Disney that their crime rates are increasing [code for PoC exist]
  3. Sell cameras to the fearful residents
  4. Profit!
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Are we going to stop homicides? No, but we will drive the clearance rate for homicides to 100 percent so people think twice before they kill someone"

Because murderers quite famously think consequences through before they kill people…

Well, some do, and they thank you for informing them ahead of time that they need to park a distance away and walk down roads where there’s not a lot of traffic that might trigger a photo being taken – or at least that they need to steal a car from an area unrelated to them before they commit their crimes – but it’s not going to do anything to stop gang related killings, crimes of passion, etc.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

ALPRs have not decreased crime

I’m not saying anything you — the TD reader — don’t already know. Sadly we are in the minority. The majority (LEOs, Congress, "law makers" etc.) don’t believe that ALPRs are a problem.

In the scientific world, we

  • define the problem (what is that exactly in ALPR cases?)
  • figure out how to best quantify a solution (let’s go with ‘track moar carz’)
  • measure the before and the after to see improvement in numbers
  • measure crime to see if we solved moar or stopped moar or what

I’ll leave my bias out of this… because … like you… I read TD and I’m a skeptic about LEOs saying anything.

Brian Laundrie is alive. His parents know where he is. ALPRs don’t help solve crimes. Put the two together and watch failure occur.

While we’re at it, Brian Laundrie was charged with using Gabby’s credit card (debit card in some stories) without her permission. She’s dead. She never testified he stole her card or used it without permission. LEOs lie. So do ALPR companies.

Sorry, Paul T, sometimes you just have to accept reality. LEOs lie.


Tall says:

Re: Identify the Problem

Ehud Gavron:

I like the way you think, but you still have not poked your head up high enough to see the big picture and "identify the problem".

The core problem is mandatory government License Plates themselves.
(not ALPRs)

Few people can grasp that reality.
License Plates are so embedded in our culture and psyche that people reflexively reject even the possibility of a modern civilized society without them.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Identify the Problem

OK, I’ll bite – why is it a problem to display something to confirm that your vehicle is properly registered and authorised to drive on public roads? What’s your alternative method to replace this system (I’ll accept that it’s a system that dates back way before modern technology and could be replaced with something)?

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Identify the Problem

Note: This started out short, but in time became longer. The TL;DR version is this: DO NOT ACCEPT BEGGED QUESTIONS AS FACT, and then BUILD ON THEM. Your foundation is breached.

You can always accept government overreach and pretend to yourself that THIS is ok, but those who complain about it, or about something that results from it are the bad guys. Such is how "authorities" (authorities on what?) diminish your rights and grant you NOTHING in return. No diminished crime, no greater accountability, just more "law enforcement" of laws not for the greater good of society. But let’s go to the question:

…why is it a problem to display something to confirm that your vehicle is PROPERLY REGISTERED AND AUTHORISED…
[emphasis mine[

Why is it a begged question that vehicles must be registered? In the US bicycles are not registered yet they have full, equal, and in some cases greater access to the public roadways.

Why must a car be registered? A bicycle has more rights and isn’t required to be registered in the entire United States. The second largest country in North America says no need to do so…

What about pedestrians? Should we beg that question also and REQUIRE that pedestrians be PROPERLY REGISTERED (whatever "properly" means) and AUTHORI[S/Z]ED to be on public roadways?

The assumption is

  • at some point PTB said all vehicles must have a unique identification number (VIN). That is now a begged question. Bicycles don’t have these, nor do pedestrians.
  • at some point, PTB said all vehicles must be registered. (Still don’t quite get the whole "properly" bit). That same VIN is now used to tie a vehicle to a recurring tax that has a tax-stamp called a registration, often associated with a "really easy for LEOs to spot a mile away" thing called a license plate. It’s nothing more than proof of paying tax. Taxes are not inherently wrong — part of being in a social contract is paying for it. Do call a spade a spade though, instead of assuming it to be ok because government said so.
  • at some point PTB said proof of same is a requirement, must be displayed so it can be visible from some specific distance, and that failure to display it provides REASON TO ELIMINATE THE PRIVILEGE OF DRIVING WITHOUT BEING SUBJECT TO LEO HARASSMENT.

During the cold war… there were lots of criticism of Nazi Germany asking drivers for "your papers, please." If these papers were not 100% perfect one could hear "Your papers are not in order."

How much different is that from "I stopped you because your license plate sticker is out of date. Please give me your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and proof of vehicle liability insurance." and "Oh, one of these is expired. Your papers are not in order."

I decline to

  • beg the question of why we need VINs. Car theft has not reduced nor have chop-shops gone out of business because of these.
  • beg the question of why we need to broadly display that we paid our registration for that year [or whatever your taxes are]
  • beg the question of why this "makes the vehicle properly registered and authorised" for anything, let alone access to taxpayer-funded public road[way]s

Feel free to give up your rights. In the United States we still get to pretend we have some. At times government convinces us that we don’t have these as rights… they are a privilege.

For my taxes that pay for roadways, I do have the right to travel. Apparently I need to pay extra to do so in a motor vehicle with a VIN. If you get bored, check out YouTube’s VINWiki. You’d likely be surprised how flexible the system is if you just don’t assume all those begged questions can be safely ignored and accepted as fact.

I did say it was long, but if you’ve read this to its end, you know we are at yet another cusp of losing rights/privileges. ALPRs allow time-travel inspection of vehicle movement. Minority Report has nothing on this. It is not today a violation of US 4th Amendment laws against unreasonable search and seizure… and yet, if accused of a crime, it sure can be.

Brian "I killed Gabby" Laundrie was charged with a crime — using her debit (some say credit) card without permission. LEOs have no evidence this happened, because she’s (sadly) unable to testify as to whether she permitted him to use her card or not. That’s enough say-so to allow ALPR record searches to see where Brian was, went, ended up (hiding in Florida with fake dental records allowing people to excuse him being dead… but he’s not.)

At some point, We The People need to take a stand and say "no mas." For me that’s ALPRs, because I’m guilty of being part of that same VIN+REGISTRATION+AUTHORIZATION generation.



PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Identify the Problem

"You can always accept government overreach and pretend to yourself that THIS is ok"

I’m yet to hear a real argument as to why identifying cars that have been legally approved to operate on public roads is overreach, and I suspect from the use of caps lock and formatting that I’m not about to read a reasonable explanation. Calm the fuck down, and talk like an adult, maybe?

"In the US bicycles are not registered yet they have full, equal, and in some cases greater access to the public roadways."

You can ride bicycles on the freeway now?

"Why must a car be registered?"

Because there are numerous rules associated with being legally allowed to use public roadways. Same reason you need a licence.

"For my taxes that pay for roadways, I do have the right to travel"

OK. Now, how are those taxes collected?

"At some point, We The People need to take a stand and say "no mas.""

Presumably while being laughed at by the rest of the world who have similar systems without ranting morons making incoherent arguments against basic administration of public property.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Identify the Problem

There’s nothing I can say that will convince a third-world laughtivist of anything.

One day you can read what I wrote. I answered your comments. There are not "numerous rules associated[means nothing] with being legally allowed[more begged questions already addressed] to use public roadways.

So again, you’ve begged the question, assumed it to be a fact, and built atop a broken foundation.

Now, how are those taxes collected?
Annual bills from the taxing authority — motor vehicle department. Next?

Presumably while being laughed at by the rest of the world.
Listen, if you want to make it "third world vs the United States" thing, that is your right — in my country. Maybe in yours you have freedom of speech too — I hope so.


Bye Felicia.


Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Identify the Problem

Given the amount of damage a car can do, and in the US how much going to hospital will cost you, how to you identify the responsible party if a car can be driven away, and not be identified? Also, do you want the cops stopping every vehicle of a given make and colour in the hope of finding evidence that is was involved in a collision.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: ALPRs have not decreased crime

is that most murders aren’t planned ahead of time so this stuff won’t act as a deterrent…

Murder is premeditated. It IS planned ahead of time. ALL murders are. That’s what makes them murder, vs, for example, accidental death, manslaughter, etc.

As for the detterence (and recidivism) the current systems of law enforcement and imprisonment definitely are ineffective at preventing crime, or repeat offenders. So, yes on that one.


Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 ALPRs have not decreased crime

Wait… you said

most murders aren’t planned ahead of time

And now you’re saying you’re stupid for having confused murder and homicide? Shall we make it about your illiteracy. No.

ALPRs allow ex-post facto policing, which in the civilized world is against constitutional and other legal guidelines. That’s the problem. Just imagine the next step. Cameras everywhere, infinite recording capacity, and the ability to intelligently search to locate something.

Why would there be crime when everyone is watching?

Because criminals. That’s why

Enjoy calling people stupid. I guess if it makes you happy, you go, girl.


PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 ALPRs have not decreased crime

"And now you’re saying you’re stupid for having confused murder and homicide?"

I’m saying I wrote murder when I meant homicide, which should be clear from the conversation and the comment I responded to. The context of the overall conversation is not hard to follow.

"Why would there be crime when everyone is watching?"

Why would there not be? Are you saying that crime in public spaces never happens?

"Enjoy calling people stupid."

Well, you’re certainly not doing anything to disprove the observation.

Anonymous Coward says:

I’m pleasantly surprised to see "Flock Safety" is not yet owned by Amazon/Bezos, though it is clearly destined to be – its tracking database begs to be integrated with Ring and its nominal purpose is easy to explain in terms of ‘porch pirates’. I hope the venture capitalists behind it now at least demand a full handful of silver before they hand it over to the empire.

Resisting plate readers based on privacy grounds is appealing but quixotic. Who is seriously going to believe that the government has the right to make you go around everywhere with a big ID tag for anybody to write down and track, but people shouldn’t look at it? It’s like you dropped your lunch in a toilet and now you want to fish it out.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…not yet owned by Amazon/Bezos.

Difficult concept. One is a corporation. It has stocks, stockholders (nvestors) and a management and a Board.

The other is a guy.

Learn the difference and stop conflating the two.

Same goes for Elon Musk and SpaceX or Tesla. If you conflate corporations for management, Board, or stockholders, you’re missing the point.

P.S. I own stock in various public companies. Try holding me responsible for their management decisions. Hint: not going to happen.

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I’m not really seeing how this relates to my interest.


Jeff Bezos is a person.
Amazon, Inc. is a corporation.
The two are not the same.

YOU want to conflate the two. You don’t get to do that. Someone’s OWNERSHIP OF STOCK or MANAGEMENT OF A CORPORATION doesn’t impart personal liability.

Here’s an analogy. I own IBM stock. I am not responsible for what the corporation does. I could even be part of their management team. I’m still not responsible for what the corporation does.

Love Bezos, hate Bezos, love Musk, hate Musk, love Warren, hate Warren, love Bill, hate Bill, love Steve Jobs (liver stealer is dead btw) or hate him… THESE ARE INDIVIDUALS. They are NOT the corporations.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

That thing where humans should demand actual facts & studies that have been vetted before accepting them as true.

The first humans were terrified of the night & the horrors they imagined lurked within… not much has changed. Even now in brightly lit stores surrounded by other people, someone assumes something else means them harm. Rather than report that harm at the time, they flee to town square and tell a much more embellished story, high lighting those little xenophobic touches required, of how THEY were selected to be a trafficked to a foriegn prince (because they would never end up strung out on drugs working a corner) & they managed to escape that horrible fate because they knew what to look for & that seeking help at the time might have exposed them of being in a fantasy world.

shoeguidepro says:

An excursion to the ocean side means swimsuit and shoes. Also, anything that is certainly not a tennis shoe or a shoe gets characterized in the mind-boggling class of "dress shoes", correct? Wrong. With regards to the different kinds of men’s shoes, there’s really a chain of importance. To put it another way: not a wide range of dress shoes are made equivalent. However, don’t go crazy at this time.

btr1701 (profile) says:

…the scanners are part of a growing wave of easy-to-use
surveillance systems promoted for their crime-fighting
powers in a country where property crime rates are at
all-time lows.

Property crime isn’t at an all-time low where I live. Thanks to Prop 47, the explosion of vagrant encampments, and our Marxist district attorney’s "let no crime go punished" policies, property crime in my area is higher than Snoop Dogg on a Friday night.

We have so many car break-ins (with little to no response from the police because the D.A. won’t prosecute them) that people are leaving their cars unlocked now so that at least their windows won’t be shattered when the vagrants come through in the night ransacking all the cars on the block.

Of course ALPRs won’t help with any of this, since most of the culprits aren’t even driving cars, but the idea that crime is at all-time lows is absurd. Maybe in Bozeman, MT, but certainly not major metropolitan areas like L.A. and New York and San Francisco.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"our Marxist district attorney"

I’d love to see policies that actually match that label, but I’m guessing you’re just another one of those people who doesn’t know what it means.

"the idea that crime is at all-time lows is absurd"

Anecdotes != data. The fact that you might be living in an outlying area statistically does not mean that the national trend is not down.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’d love to see policies that actually match that label,
but I’m guessing you’re just another one of those
people who doesn’t know what it means.

Maybe he’s the one who doesn’t know what "Marxist" means because that’s how he has openly described himself. I take him at his word.

But he certainly doesn’t believe in private property, or at a minimum he doesn’t believe the government should be defending private property rights. The week he took office he issued a blanket directive that property crimes will no longer be prosecuted in L.A. County absent extraordinary circumstances. To quote him, "That’s what insurance is for".

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The fact that you might be living in an outlying area
statistically does not mean that the national trend
is not down.

National trends are irrelevant to the issue of a neighborhood being pitched on ALPRs. Who cares what the national trend is? When you’re considering security protocols for your neighborhood, you only care what’s actually happening locally.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Yes and you said it in response to:

"a country where property crime rates are at all-time lows"

Which, if not intended as a rebuttal to that point was a weird thing to be typing. If it is intended as a rebuttal, that plus the other things you typed just indicate you don’t know how words work in the context of sentences.

If you’re going to claim something is "absurd", at least deal with the same context as the post you were replying to, else it makes you look really stupid. Nothing about the state of your local area invalidates the point that national stats are low.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

Which, if not intended as a rebuttal to that point was a weird thing to be typing.

I was pointing out a distinction to a sweeping generality which might explain the behavior of neighborhood orgs that are considering ALPRs, not a rebuttal. How does this not track with you? Are you really this thick or are you just playing stupid for effect and advantage?

Ehud Gavron (profile) says:

Anecdotes != data

Maybe for once we can agree on something, but I want to differentiate between "One person told a story they personally experienced" vs "A well respected lab test shows X."

The concept you are espousing taints all anecdotal information, but that’s not realistic. People prefer their own personal stories, but that doesn’t make the stories false, or the information invalid.

If anecdotal information was not accepted as data, our methods of having witnesses at trial (they lie) or customers on the support line (they lie) would fail.

Prior to recorded history*, the scientific method, and critical observation, anecdotal information was considered data. Now we have the revisionists who want their own agendas to color what is and is not data. One such revisionist organization even has a class to teach about it. The implementation is not bad, but the presumed concept is inherently flawed:

To ensure that the anecdotal information is good data there are methods to ensure integrity of the information and any conclusions drawn from it… just as with any other information source. That’s all part of validation of data, regardless if it’s an Aunt Minnie situation or a JAMA article.

Simple methods that are often not followed, which makes the information ineligible to be the foundation for conclusions:

  • Label sources so others know where the information originated and how.
  • Provide a mechanism for others to replicate the conclusions
  • Ensure the conclusion doesn’t draw from information not in evidence (e.g. US Federal Rules of Evidence Rule 703). Also Australia’s Rule 702 regarding expert testimony is another good example of this delineation.

So — yes — anecdotal information is not as valid for building a foundation for theory or conclusion as is laboratory-verified replicable tests. It is, however, data.


  • Even with recorded history, videos of the US moon landing of the Apollo 11 mission in 1966, many people (idiots IMO) still claim it’s faked. We have recorded video, audio, terrain samples, and a history of many missions leading up to this… and yet, this "data" is considered worse than anecdotal… actual premeditated conspiracy to defraud the entire planet. There are many other examples (e.g. Trump and his stolen election). The point is all of us should critically examine what we read, view, see, and hear with an eye and an ear to validate replicable data from one-time personal stories.

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