We all want to protect our home and family.
How far would you go to secure the homestead? A monitored security system? Sure. A doorbell camera to record people approaching? Possibly. An anti-tank rocket launcher? Might be fun to own, but not economical or practical, even if you were allowed to keep it. And would you want your neighbor to have one? What about all of your neighbors?
Somewhere along the path between doorbell cameras and anti-tank weapons lies the newest home protection equipment – privately-owned license plate readers. A new company straight out of Y Combinator is offering machine-learning license plate capture technology for your home and office. Flock Safety, a start-up that describes itself in press releases as a crime-solving company, offers for sale TALON, a national network of automatic license plate readers. Anyone can own a node in this network.
Until recently, license plate readers had been the province of law enforcement. This makes sense, because police are charged with preventing crimes and catching criminals, they are trained on this technology, and the general public has constitutional and administrative protections against improper use of surveillance technology by law enforcement. If your neighbor installs a license plate reader, he can be monitoring the movements of his family, neighbors and anyone who shows up on the street, without significant legal limits.
If your neighbor installs a license plate reader, he can be monitoring the movements of his family, neighbors and anyone who shows up on the street, without significant legal limits.
Even police use of this technology leads to serious problems. The New York Times wrote an entire article about “When License-Plate Surveillance Goes Horribly Wrong,” showing examples of police drawing guns and cuffing drivers who the AI wrongly identified as car thieves. “Detainments … are a growing reality for millions of Americans, whose movements are being constantly tracked by an array of surveillance cameras, some of which actively contact law enforcement.” The Northern California Regional Intelligence Center estimates the license plate reading machines have an error rate of 10%, which would provide a relative high risk of tracking and arresting the wrong people.
According to Wired, “Cops have used license plate readers for at least a decade, but the ones made by Flock Safety are arguably more powerful. They automatically catalog a vehicle’s model, color, make, and any distinguishing marks, as well as the date and time they passed through the neighborhood. The cameras ping law enforcement the minute a known stolen vehicle crosses their path.” So a set of Flock Safety cameras in your neighborhood will log all the cars that pass the device and find cars reported as stolen.
What does this do for the security of your neighborhood? It is easy to believe that more surveillance leads to better security, and Flock Safety definitely makes this argument. Flock Safety claims its cameras fight crime before it occurs. By activating the Hot List function (likely at additional cost) Flock Safety will notify local law enforcement whenever a “known wanted suspect” – actually a vehicle with license plate associated with that suspect – passes the camera. And of course the company leans heavily on the security-sign-effect, claiming that if criminals see signs warning of license plate readers, then criminals are less likely to commit crimes in the vicinity of the readers.
It is easy to believe that more surveillance leads to better security, and Flock Safety definitely makes this argument.
When Flock Safety cameras are installed by homeowners associations they often allow police direct access to the list of cars that have passed the cameras. According to Wired, “the overall effect installing license plate readers has on crime rates still isn’t clear, and likely can’t be determined by conducting a short experiment. Some studies indicate the readers don’t deter crime, while others have found the devices can potentially reduce certain types of offenses.” The deterrent value of this technology is not certain.
The effect on privacy is more clear. If a crime occurs, every car that passes through the neighborhood is automatically a suspect, whether or not a vehicle that passed the cameras contained a criminal. Flock Safety technology casts suspicion on everyone who comes and goes. People’s daily routines are recorded and usually available to law enforcement.
Who is looking at the camera feeds? Your local homeowner’s association or neighborhood watch is unlikely to have governance or procedures to limit access to information collected by Flock Safety. Which neighbors may want to track your movements, or the movements of people in their own households? Even the police who have access to these records may not have established rules for how the data can be used. A February 2020 California State Auditor’s report found problems for law enforcement in access rules, retention policies and data security.
Who is looking at the camera feeds? Your local homeowner’s association or neighborhood watch is unlikely to have governance or procedures to limit access to information collected by Flock Safety.
And adding this type of technology to your local streets builds the surveillance state that is developing around us. Combined with doorbell cameras and other invasive systems, the license plate readers are another thread in the web of surveillance capturing you every place you go. Not long ago, many people could count on privacy through obscurity and anonymity. Slipping out of your house did not automatically mean that people were recording when and where you went. With Flock Safety added to the net, anonymity vanishes.
The numbers and varieties of surveillance equipment continues to proliferate. We will need to decide whether more surveillance means less crime, or simply better documented crime. We will also need to balance the utility of these surveillance devices against the loss of anonymity for entering and exiting our neighborhoods. The time may arrive when you want to slip quietly in or out of your driveway without announcing your presence to family, neighbors, and police. But if we keep installing networks of cameras and license plate readers, then your time for anonymity will have passed.