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Privately owned and operated license plate readers create privacy concerns

Posted at 4:04 PM, Dec 11, 2019

Surveillance systems are popping up everywhere.

And in Sherman Oaks, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, some people have big concerns about privately-owned license plate readers recording cars on public streets.

“It could be turned bad very quickly,” said homeowner Paul Diamond.

Diamond calls these cameras an invasion of his personal privacy.

“It does tend to disquiet me that everyone will know everything about where everybody is at any one time,” he said.

Security experts say these privacy concerns are legit.

“Are they aware that their vehicles are being videotaped? And are they ok with that? And are they ok with essentially private citizens essentially reviewing that tape at will,” asked Steve Beaty, a professor of computer science at Metropolitan State University (MSU) Denver.

Beaty says license plate readers have been around for years but up until recently only law enforcement had access to them.

“I think what’s new is a lot of this technology is being private people’s hands and in private people’s purview,” he said.

Private citizens like Robert Shontell who with a couple dozen of his neighbors bought these cameras and software from the company Flock Safety.

While Shontell says these cameras gives him peace of mind, he does address his neighbor’s privacy concerns.

“You don’t want somebody that does searches to see what time their neighbor came home last night. You don’t want that. We don’t want that,” he said. “So, what we did was pick three people who have access.”

That’s three people that have access to video of every single vehicle that drives by one of the cameras. Robert and two other neighbors.

Flock Safety says they built this technology not to create a surveillance state but rather crackdown on crime and they claim they have the numbers to prove it’s working.

“We have these statistics like a 33% reduction or a 66% reduction in crime,” said Garrett Langley, Flock Safety CEO. “That’s not arrests that’s just crime not happening.”

Langley says a camera and software cost about $2,000 and that they’ve helped thousands of people since launching two years ago.

“You fast forward to today we’ve got customers across 36 states including Hawaii,” he said. “And we make about five arrests an hour with our law enforcement partners.”

Partners like the Redlands Police Department who had several Flock cameras donated to them by the public.

“The license plate readers have been pivotal in several of our cases,” said Redlands Police Chief Travis Martinez. “We’ve caught vehicles that have fled armed robberies, Commercial nighttime window smash burglaries of restaurants.”

Martinez says his department has made dozens of arrests since using Flock Safety cameras a few months ago.

“It’s so great to be able to tell victims of crime that we do have a lead, we do have something that we can investigate,” he said.

Martinez says all Flock video automatically deletes after 30 days.

But for people like Diamond, however, the potential for misuse and abuse has a longer impact.

“Authoritarianism in general,” he said about what scares him the most. “There’s a sense of it creeping over the country I’m not happy about.”