Police Departments Conspire with Boards to Secretly Install License Plate Cameras Without Consent of Residents
by Benjamin Tschirhart
Flock Safety” sounds innocuous, like a company that might provide security for chicken farmers. However, this company has nothing to do with fowl. But make no mistake; what they do is foul. Speaking to the people of Lakeway, Texas, Mayor Thomas Kilgore felt compelled to make the disclosure that “a surveillance system has been installed in the city of Lakeway.” Usually, when a community installs a system like this, they have some knowledge of it – not this time. “We find ourselves with a surveillance system, with no information and no policies, procedures or protections.”
As the mayor, the people of Lakeway probably ought to expect that the mayor’s office might know something about the eight license plate readers that had been installed on roads in the town, both public and private. He didn’t. He only learned about the existence of the cameras after they had already been in place, capturing people’s movement for around six months. The executive branch of the city had taken no part in the decision. That honor had been claimed by the Rough Hollow Homeowners Association and its governing body, “Legend Communities,” which signed a deal in January 2021 granting local police access to the data collected by the system.
Residents of Lakeway (who already had their information sent to the police about a dozen times in six months) were not comforted by Legend Communities’ Chief Operating Officer Bill Hayes, who insisted that his purpose for installing the covert system to spy on local residents – without their knowledge or consent – was to be a “partner with the city.” “We didn’t go out there thinking we were being Big Brother,” said Hayes. But of course, a flood is nothing more than a multitude of single raindrops. Big Brother is not one person or entity but many, all acting in service of a controlling, authoritarian purpose.
Flock is part of that flood. “Typically,” says Director of Marketing Meg Heusel, “when we work with agencies, we start with neighborhood HOAs.” But in reality, the police are Flock’s point of entry. Sales reps entice police with images of a vast trove of data about private citizens, including their vehicle plate numbers, state, vehicle type, make, color, registration status, decals, and other details which they cannot legally gather, unless private citizens volunteer it. Flock representatives emphasize the enormous help this information will provide to police in making arrests. And here, they aren’t wrong. In Raleigh, North Carolina, police say that in the first six months, the system gave them 116 “wanted person” alerts and yielded 41 arrests.
Flock’s strategy works. So far, over 200 HOAs around the country have purchased their systems. In addition to providing local data, these systems are also linked to the nationwide Flock database, which is stored on Amazon Web Services servers and is accessed by law enforcement agencies around the country. The ACLU of Northern California found more than 80 agencies across multiple states sharing license plate database information with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, in violation of several state laws.
But this is where Flock’s concern with legal compliance apparently ends. “Flock does not determine what a crime is. We’d expect that local law enforcement will enforce those laws as they are legally or socially required.” Of course, when it comes to obtaining information about citizens, the government has made it abundantly clear that laws are no obstacle to their goals.
Flock (along with their primary competitor Vigilant Solutions) has cultivated a “totally inappropriate relationship” with law enforcement agencies, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “co-opting government agencies to promote their product.” These law enforcement agencies pressure HOA boards to purchase Flock systems, sometimes even offering grants to assist the HOA in paying for the equipment. These grants, of course, come with strings attached; in Ranchos Palos Verdes, California, where 14 HOAs have received grants to install cameras, the conditions include allowing police to “locate, review and download video recordings and readings.”
Predictably, the HOA leaders push their invasive projects through with little regard for the people they are meant to serve. David Appell, a resident of a gated community that installed a Flock system recalls that “They were very belligerent and opaque in how they went about it.” Appell’s recollection might contain a frightening prediction. If states do not proactively move to regulate the use of these cameras and systems, more Americans can look forward to the same experience in the near future. “They wouldn’t let anyone opt out. The administration was in their hands.” The residents of Lakeway managed to get their cameras removed; the next community might not be so fortunate.
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