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.