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Indianapolis neighborhoods scanning visitors' license plates

Homeowners associations across Indianapolis are increasingly partnering with private companies to surveil their neighborhoods with automated license plate readers.

Posted: Jan 11, 2021 9:46 AM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Homeowners associations across Indianapolis are increasingly partnering with private companies to surveil their neighborhoods with automated license plate readers.

Georgia-based Flock Safety and California-based Vigilant Solutions are among companies that for years have provided the technology to law enforcement agencies, enabling them to identify, catalog and distribute any passing vehicle’s model, color and license plate number.

But the firms’ push in recent years to begin offering the same technology to homeowners association presidents has civil liberty advocates looking over their shoulders.

Flock Safety CEO Garrett Langley said motorists should not see cause for alarm.

“People make a false assumption that we want Big Brother to exist,” he said. “But we believe there’s a world where we can have privacy and safety. We don’t believe there has to be a trade-off.”

More central Indiana neighborhood leaders are starting to embrace that mindset.

Flock said it has put cameras in 14 Indianapolis neighborhoods since launching its neighborhood service three years ago. One of its newer clients is Pickwick Commons, a neighborhood of 77 homes at Ditch Road and West 91st Street, which came aboard about a year ago, according to Jayson Parker, president of its homeowners association.

Flock’s cameras automatically scan vehicles as they pass and can immediately notify associations in instances where the license plate has been reported stolen. Flock also provides associations access to a searchable database, so they can retroactively look up unexpected vehicles near their homes and share screenshots if they suspect a crime has occurred.

Langley said he first thought of offering automated license plate readers to neighborhoods after his Georgia neighborhood was plagued by a string of car break-ins. A police officer told him his neighbor’s doorbell camera was too low-quality to provide vital evidence, so he set about creating a system that provided civilians with the same hardware and software officers use to catch the bad guys.

But civil liberties advocates worry about putting such a powerful technology in the hands of the untrained, and about its potential for abuse.

Angie Raymond, an associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, said there’s a big difference between a law enforcement agency’s use of the technology and a civilian’s use.

She said she worries about the lack of policies dictating how a civilian can access and use the information. She said automated license plate readers can easily track and disseminate information about neighborhood visitors who have a perfectly legitimate reason for driving down the road.

“Private entities can surveil us without being bound in many instances by the law,” Raymond said. “The big divide is in the way that information is stored, shared, retained and even gathered.”

Raymond said law enforcement, local governments, universities and other public institutions have certain procedures and policies to practice safe data management. That’s just not the case with the head of a homeowners association.

“They’re tasked with the community space being mowed and (that) the signs you see when you drive in are pretty,” she said. “They don’t have the time or the knowledge to dig into this.”

Raymond said neighborhood leaders considering this method of combating porch pirates need to ask themselves what the data will do, how it will be used, what rules are in place to protect the innocent, and how that data will be shared and stored.

“Those are the conversations you need to have. If you don’t do that, you need to pass,” she said.

But Parker, Pickwick’s homeowners association president, said he’s comfortable his neighborhood’s two cameras don’t infringe on privacy. He said that he and two other board members are the only ones with access to the cameras’ database and that neighbors trust them to use the data responsibly.

“As a community, we didn’t have any kickback from anybody. Nobody was concerned,” Parker said. “We didn’t hear, ‘No, I don’t want to live in a police state,’ or any of that stuff.”

Pickwick was developed in the mid-1960s and features homes from around $200,000 to more than $800,000. Some of the residents are doctors who work at nearby Ascension St. Vincent Hospital.

Two years ago, Parker said, residents were calling him to report their mail and packages had been stolen.

“The mail theft was happening multiple times a week. Apparently, they were driving into the neighborhood at 3 a.m. and going through mailboxes,” he said.

The homeowners association’s nine-member board considered several surveillance companies, but wound up choosing Flock Safety for a number of reasons, including the fact that cameras would cost just $4,000 a year and the company’s interface was simple to use through a smartphone app or on a desktop.

The neighborhood announces the presence of the cameras with signs at entrances. Since installing the cameras, Parker said, his neighbors have stopped calling to report mail theft.

In one instance, he was able to provide a landscaping company with the license plate and footage of a vehicle that pulled up and stole a leaf blower.

“What they were able to do with that, I don’t know. The point is, now they have a suspect. They’ve got a car; they’ve got a license plate. They can follow that up,” Parker said. “We provided them with information that they should be able to (use to) solve a crime. Before, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

He said the success Pickwick Commons saw inspired North Willow Farms, a neighborhood with 450 homes on the west side of Ditch Road, to reach out to Flock to have its own system installed.

Partly because of Flock’s success marketing to neighborhoods, it is on a growth tear, with employment on track to triple this year, to 160. The firm helped fund its growth by raising $63 million in venture capital this year.

The company now claims its automated license plate readers used by law enforcement agencies, neighborhood associations and other clients solve two or more crimes a day, and the data collected by those cameras assists in five investigations each hour.

“It’s enough for a detective to plug in the license plates and get to work,” Langley said. “I still get goosebumps every minute of the day when we hear of success stories from this neighborhood, or a police department clearing some heinous crimes.”

Flock’s rival Vigilant Solutions, a division of Motorola Solutions, also has built a substantial neighborhood business, though it would not provide specifics on its Indianapolis clients.

About half of Vigilant’s customers are in law enforcement, and the other half are neighborhood associations and other commercial clients.

“We’ve partnered with both government law enforcement agencies — as well as corporate and residential entities — for quite some time,” said John Kedzierski, Motorola Solutions’ senior vice president and general manager of video security and analytics.

“Having that collaboration with local agencies is extremely important, and of interest to both law enforcement and a private community.”

Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he’s watched Vigilant and Flock battle for market share for quite some time.

The not-for-profit has amassed public records from agencies across the nation to determine where — and to what extent — police are using surveillance technologies.

The public might be surprised how widespread the use of license plate readers has become.

In 2019 alone, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department scanned 1.1 million license plates and the Indiana State Police scanned 244,683 license plates using Vigilant Solutions’ automated license plate readers.

Maass said most license plate reader companies do a poor job of establishing and conveying sufficient privacy policies to their users. He said Flock’s promise to hard-delete all data after 30 days is a start.

He’s not convinced the companies’ main priority is safety.

“In my estimation, license plate reader systems are more about business than they are about public safety. It’s a mass surveillance technology that doesn’t care if you’re doing anything wrong or anything suspicious,” Maass said.

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