Aggressive US Marketers are Bringing Police Surveillance Tools to the Masses

“License plate readers are rapidly reshaping private security in American neighborhoods,” reports the Washington Post, as aggressively-marketed $2,500-a-year “safety-as-a-service” packages “spread to cover practically everywhere anyone chooses to live in the United States” and “bringing police surveillance tools to the masses with an automated watchdog that records 24 hours a day.” 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 not just for million-dollar homes,” Flock’s founder, Garrett Langley, said. “This is America at its core…”

Its solar-powered, motion-sensing camera can snap a dozen photos of a single plate in less than a second — even in the dark, in the rain, of a car driving 100 mph up to 75 feet away, as Flock’s marketing materials say. 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…

Flock’s customer base has roughly quadrupled since 2019, with police agencies and homeowners associations in more than 1,400 cities today, and the company has hired sales representatives in 30 states to court customers with promises of a safer, more-monitored life. Company officials have also attended town hall meetings and papered homeowners associations with glossy marketing materials declaring its system “the most user-friendly, least invasive way for communities to stop crime”: a network of cameras “that see like a detective,” “protect home values” and “automate [the] neighborhood watch … while you sleep.” Along the way, the Atlanta-based company has become an unlikely darling of American tech. The company said in July it had raised $150 million from prominent venture capital firms such as Andreessen Horowitz, which said Flock was pursuing “a massive opportunity in shaping the future….”

Flock deletes the footage every 30 days by default and encourages customers to search only when investigating crime. But the company otherwise lets customers set their own rules: In some neighborhoods, all the homeowners can access the images for themselves…

Camera opponents didn’t want the neighborhood’s leaders to anoint themselves gatekeepers, choosing who does and doesn’t belong. And they worried that if someone’s car was broken into, but no one knew exactly when, the system could lead to hundreds of drivers, virtually all of them innocent, coming under suspicion for the crime. They also worried about the consequences of the cameras getting it wrong. In San Francisco, police had handcuffed a woman at gunpoint in 2009 after a camera garbled her plate number; another family was similarly detained last year because a thief had swiped their tag before committing a crime. And last year in Aurora, 30 miles from Paradise Hills, police handcuffed a mother and her children at gunpoint after a license plate reader flagged their SUV as stolen. The actual stolen vehicle, a motorcycle, had the same plate number from another state. Police officials have said racial profiling did not play a role, though the drivers in all three cases were Black. (The license plate readers in these cases were not Flock devices, and the company said its systems would have shown more accurate results…)

The Paradise Hills opponents were right to be skeptical about a local crime wave. According to Jefferson County sheriff’s records shared with The Post, the only crime reports written up since September 2020 included two damaged mailboxes, a fraudulent unemployment claim and some stuff stolen out of three parked cars, two of which had been left unlocked. “I wouldn’t exactly say it’s a hot spot,” patrol commander Dan Aten told The Post…

The cameras clicked on in August, a board member said. In the weeks since, the neighborhood hasn’t seen any reports of crime. The local sheriff’s office said it hasn’t used the Flock data to crack any cases, nor has it found the need to ask.

Flock’s founder, Garrett Langley, nonetheless tells the Washington Post, “There are 17,000 cities in America.

“Until we have them all, we’re not done.”