Neighborhood Watch Has a New Tool: License-Plate Readers

Residents fear the gadgets will enable snooping — and much worse

About a year ago, Brian Davidson spotted a crew installing a 14-foot pole in the middle of his neighbor’s well-manicured lawn. When he walked next door to ask what was happening, he learned that his homeowner association’s board of directors near Dallas, Texas, was installing automated license plate readers (ALPRs) in order to prevent crime. “[My neighbor] had no idea it was even done,” Davidson tells OneZero. “No one was given permission … they just stuffed it in there.”

Davidson’s neighbor asked the homeowner association, called Bedford Stonecourt, to remove the pole from his yard, and the crew did. The next day, they moved it onto the lawn of a West Point graduate, someone Davidson describes as “not to be f*cked with.” “He’s just like ‘get it out, get it out.’ So they removed it from his lawn,” Davidson says. On the third try, the crew mounted the pole on a chunk of shared land.

According to Flock Safety, the manufacturer of the ALPR system installed at Bedford Stonecourt, the device creates a “fingerprint” for every vehicle that enters a neighborhood with a “proprietary machine learning algorithm.” Flock’s website boasts that “the software categorizes each automobile by model (car, truck, motorcycle, etc.) as well as color and groups the info together into a single vehicle profile.”

ALPR technology, invented in 1976 by the U.K.’s Police Scientific Development Branch, has become a popular law enforcement tool over the past decade and is now commonly used to track down alleged lawbreakers, to gather information about vehicles of interest, and to track down individuals who owe fines.

But now, ALPR companies are targeting the private realm as well. “Live in an HOA or neighborhood? Work in law enforcement?” reads the intro text on Flock’s website. In either case, the call to action is the same: “Use license plate readers to capture evidence and stop crime.” The company, which was founded in 2017, claims 700,000 neighbors in 400 cities and 35 states live in communities that rely on its technology.

At least seven homeowner associations (HOAs) in San Diego County, 100 neighborhoods in Georgia, 10 in the Denver area, and dozens throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and elsewhere have installed A.I.-infused ALPRs manufactured by Flock and a handful of other companies such as Vigilant Solutions and Obsidian Integration. Flock provides a calculator that recommends the number of cameras that neighborhoods should install: For 50 homes with two entrances, it recommends between two to four cameras; for 100 homes with five entrances, it recommends between five and 10. Each camera costs $2,000 per year. ALPR’s expansion beyond law enforcement may be one reason investors have bet more than $35 million in venture capital funding on Flock. The company closed its most recent and largest round of funding — $15 million — in March.

HOAs are prime targets for companies like Flock because it often takes convincing just a few individuals on an HOA board that ALPRs are necessary tools for community safety to score a sale. And once that sale has been scored, there’s little that residents even in these relatively wealthy communities can do to stop it.

Davidson, for his part, joined other disgruntled neighbors to start a campaign against the license plate readers, citing fears that board members — who were each given access to the data — could abuse the power. The group went door to door gathering support, but the effort fizzled in the uncomfortable heat of a San Antonio summer. “And then Covid came, and nobody gave a shit anymore,” Davidson explains. Now he just lives with the surveillance.

“My anxiety levels are higher than normal as a result of the capabilities of the system,” he says.

Flock claims its technology “helps solve up to five crimes an hour,” citing incidents in which ALPR cameras have been used to find a carjacking suspect, solve a drive-by shooting, and even catch “some possible thieves.”

In one promotional video, an older woman — representing an HOA board member — sits on her laptop at home perusing Flock data. “We make it really easy for you to pull footage in the event that a crime occurs,” a voiceover says, explaining that authorized users can filter by date, time, and vehicle attributes to “get right down to the evidence you need in a few clicks.”

Flock’s main pitch to HOAs is that the cameras improve safety by “preventing and eliminating nonviolent crime.” In a statement provided to OneZero, Flock wrote: “We believe everyone has a right to public safety — neighborhoods, businesses, and cities. The reason 83% of property crime (porch pirates and car break-ins) goes unsolved is not due to lack of effort by law enforcement but lack of evidence.”

Mike Keeler, an HOA board member in Las Vegas, told OneZero that he first learned about Flock through an advertisement on Facebook. Concerned about several automobile break-ins and impressed by the technology, he introduced the system to the two other board members. Over Keeler’s privacy-related objections, the other members wound up preferring Flock’s competitor, Vigilant Solutions, because it automatically sends ALPR data to the Las Vegas Fusion Center, an intelligence operation linking local, state, and federal police forces under one roof.

But while a sense of safety may often be the draw, there are few barriers to HOAs and their board members using the data for other purposes. Since Fourth Amendment privacy rules do not apply to private citizens, HOA boards are not subject to any oversight. “Whatever motivates an individual gatekeeper — racial biases, frustration with another neighbor, even disagreements among family members — could all be used in conjunction with ALPR records to implicate someone in a crime or in any variety of other legal but uncomfortable situations,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends civil liberties in the digital world.

“If [a board member] wanted to find out whoever is on property right now, they could get that report.”

An HOA board member in Atlanta who is a fan of their community’s Flock ALPR technology told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she scrolls through the list of cars that enter her neighborhood during a 10-hour period every day “just out of curiosity.”

“It literally will show you everything. Cars, people walking. There’s a fox in the neighborhood that crosses the street every now and then,” she said. “Hopefully it will help deter criminals from coming into the neighborhood.” Davidson worries that this type of 24/7 surveillance may empower board members to abuse their power.

Some of these concerns include exacerbating an existing culture of keeping tabs on neighbors and whether they’re breaking rules at Bedford Stonecourt. Shortly after removing a tree from his lawn, for instance, he received a violation notice that the stump was not perfectly flush with the ground (it was about an inch above, he says). Since Flock’s system tracks when cars come and go, the data could easily be used to track overnight guests, which are forbidden in Stonecourt.

“Congrats on getting laid last night; here’s your bill,” Davidson joked.

Other concerns are more serious. “If [a board member] wanted to find out whoever is on property right now, they could get that report; that’s pretty straightforward,” Davidson said. He’s worried this could enable stalkers. “All I’ve got to do is write a query,” he says.

By the time Davidson heard at an HOA annual meeting that Bedford Stonecourt planned to install ALPR technology, he says, it felt as if he was too late to stop it.

The decision had been made through a proxy vote, a loophole devised by the HOA board that replaced a community-wide vote with a board vote. “The people who were regularly involved in the community, they were all pissed off,” Davidson tells OneZero. Others, he says, likely don’t even realize the vote took place.

Pamela Thessen, a homeowner in Cotswold HOA in Birmingham, Alabama, which recently installed one ALPR, shares a similar story of disempowerment. In February, her HOA president floated the idea of Flock’s ALPR technology to the community’s Facebook group, she tells OneZero. A month later, the board passed a rule whereby HOA purchases under $10,000 would no longer require a neighborhood vote. The vote on this rule was held at 6 p.m., a time when a majority of residents were still commuting home from work, Thessen says — leading to a 95% abstention rate.

Thessen didn’t connect the dots at the time but believes now that this new bylaw was an act of subterfuge, allowing the president to unilaterally install Flock’s ALPR technology. “We have three entrances,” she says. “He buys a camera one at a time; that is less than $10,000. So that’s what he’s doing.”

Even if HOA residents had more of a say in whether ALPR technology was installed in their neighborhoods, the most vulnerable people who enter a neighborhood, like housekeepers, babysitters, and other service workers, still would not.

Civil liberties advocates are concerned that ubiquitous license-plate readers will exacerbate existing racial and economic inequalities.

Examples of how ALPRs can be used in ways that unfairly discriminate have already emerged in use by police who, unlike private neighborhoods, are ostensibly subject to oversight. In August, police in Aurora, Colorado, stopped a Black family at gunpoint — including children ages six and eight — and forced them to lie face down on the parking lot pavement based on a department-operated ALPR machine error. Aurora police claimed the license plate of the family’s minivan matched the license plate of a motorcycle in Montana that was reported as stolen, a claim that hasn’t been verified. While it is difficult to determine whether similar incidents have stemmed from privately operated ALPRs because police do not track and report such events, it is not difficult to imagine such a scenario. Flock’s ALPR system automatically includes a “hotlist” feature that sends notifications to law enforcement when a vehicle of interest, like one that has been reported stolen, crosses a digital gate.

Flock promotes its technology as facilitating “objective policing” by promoting “bonds between police departments and citizens” and claims to “stand in solidarity with the BIPOC community.” However, any technology that increases police involvement in affairs is prone to tragic consequences. Companies like Vigilant Solutions have some neighborhood license-plate readers that automatically funnel data into a nationwide license-plate database accessible to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), fusion centers, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and other federal agencies. Since many wealthy families hire undocumented people for help at home, some ALPR data in an HOA setting could theoretically be used by ICE to apprehend people.

The Ranchos Palos Verdes City Council created a “video camera incentive program” that encouraged homeowner associations in the wealthy Californian district to install ALPRs from Obsidian Integration, a company that contracts with ICE. In exchange for a grant, the HOA would need to provide the sheriff’s department with access to “locate, review and download video recordings and readings.”

Flock, too, encourages citizens to “solve crime,” advertising that an HOA board member in Nashville, Tennessee, has used their cameras to catch “possible thieves.” For an HOA board member who is eager and empowered to solve crimes, what seems suspicious is subjective and prone to bias.

If even wealthy private neighborhood residents can’t stop surveillance creep, the future looks bleak for the average citizen.

Meanwhile, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, there is no robust evidence that ALPRs actually prevent crime.

To relieve privacy concerns, Flock offers a “safelist” feature which makes it so cameras can delete a resident’s vehicle from footage. But nonresidents who enter a neighborhood have no way to put themselves on such a list. And for residents, whoever installs the technology must enable the safelist. In Thessen’s case, the board president opted out.

Thessen attempted to share an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) article pertaining to racial bias and other issues to her HOA Facebook group but was met with vitriol and dismissiveness from the president. She left the group.

If even wealthy private neighborhood residents can’t stop surveillance creep, the future looks bleak for the average citizen. While Flock advertises that neighborhood ownership of its own data is its “best” feature, lower-income communities are unlikely to know that they are being surveilled by the state or by landlords with ALPRs.

In an October newsletter, Rekor Systems Inc. claimed to be “leading the way with democratizing license plate and vehicle recognition for the masses” through its OpenALPR technology. According to Quartz, anyone can download OpenALPR software for free, turn a web-connected camera into an ALPR, and analyze the data in a cloud. Within two years, OpenALPR’s use has grown from 300 to 9,200 cameras in 70 counties. Half of the users are police; the other half are private citizens.

According to Slate, Watchtower Security, which uses Rekor’s OpenALPR software, has sold more than 475 ALPR cameras to landlords at primarily lower-income rental properties and scans “more than 1.5 million license plates in a week.” A representative told Slate that about once per week, the company uses the data to prove that a tenant has had an overnight guest, violating their lease. (Increasingly, landlords are utilizing surveillance technology dubbed Prop Tech to build cases against tenants they want to evict from rent-stabilized housing.)

In February 2020, an Alabama public housing authority sent a request for proposal (RFP) to surveillance companies with the goal of installing ALPRs throughout six of its affordable housing projects in Montgomery. OneZero obtained the RFP, which noted that “the processed data will be sent to the cloud for post-processing and NCIC [National Crime Information Center] list comparison by a separate application which would provide automatic notifications to the MPD [Montgomery Police Department].” According to the RFP, local police recommended either Flock or Rekor.

There isn’t any indication that the housing authority has informed tenants of this proposal. (The Montgomery Housing Authority did not respond to OneZero’s request for comment.)

The ACLU has called for police to be the only entity in control of all license-plate reader data. It argues that the government should not store data about innocent people, that people should be able to find out if their car is being tracked, that law enforcement agencies should not share license-plate reader data, and that any entity that uses license-plate readers should be required to report the usage publicly on an annual basis. Such public disclosure could allow for some to make more informed decisions about their living situation. But disclosures wouldn’t necessarily translate to power. If every HOA or every rental unit eventually installs ALPRs, residents have no choice but to live with surveillance.

Brendan McQuade, author of Pacifying the Homeland: Intelligence Fusion and Mass Supervision, argues that this sort of narrow, privacy-oriented analysis can miss the point. Civil liberty scholars often “do not describe reality as much as they help structure it through the redefinition or erasure of class struggle,” McQuade writes.

In other words, by focusing on transparency and accountability, privacy scholars often present mass surveillance technologies as natural, necessary tools and obscure their administrative function. When scholars recommend additional oversight for surveillance, they pave the path for future “accountable” forms of surveillance rather than ask how and why such intensive intelligence gathering became common practice in the first place.

McQuade’s framework allows him to get at the root of the creep. “Installing ALPR on public housing is obvious not just because it is a politically vulnerable target,” he says “but also because it is what the state does: manage poor people to maintain order.”

Flock’s marketing implicitly capitalizes on racialized fears that vengeful outsiders and “looters” will swarm into wealthier communities. When Flock boasts that wealthy HOA boards use LPRs to catch teens performing doughnuts in cars, recover stolen bicycles, and turn over pesky trash dumpers to the police, it is legitimizing a reliance on the carceral system to solve every social problem — a mindset that contributes to the United States incarcerating more people per capita than any other country.

Flock’s focus on solving relatively trivial, nonviolent property crime in HOAs comes at a time when more and more people are recognizing the need for alternative, noncarceral solutions to solving social problems. The answer, according to abolitionists like Ruth Wilson Gilmore, lies instead on improving systems of support that many communities lack.

But such solutions are unlikely to raise $35 million in venture-capital backing.

Update: This article initially misstated the location of Bedford Stonecourt. It is near Dallas, Texas.

Writer, Researcher, Sleuth|Armenian American| @thenation @truthout @slate | She/They | Questioning Everything| Tech, Science, Power,

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