Iowa American Civil Liberties Union says new Camanche surveillance technology violates privacy rights

City said program was adopted to help solve hit and run, stolen vehicle cases
Published: May. 12, 2022 at 9:04 PM CDT
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CAMANCHE, Iowa (KWQC) - In April the city of Camanche and its police department announced it would be buying seven cameras from Flock Safety, a company that makes technology to read license plates and automatically scan them against national crime databases.

At least two of those cameras are already installed and sitting along U.S. Highway 67, scanning the plates of cars that come into town.

“Every one that goes through,” Andrew Kida, the City’s Administrator responded to TV6′s question on whether the cameras scanned all license plates it passed.

The motivation for the cameras, says Kida, was the ongoing problem the city faces with hit and run cases, stolen vehicle cases, as well as the city’s desire to help other police departments with missing persons cases.

Since 2017, the city of Camanche has had 85 hit and run accidents, 56 vehicle thefts, and 26 missing person cases. Clinton, a larger city nearby, has had 843 hit and run reports, 350 stolen vehicles, and 47 missing persons cases since 2017.

“Highways are known corridors of trafficking illegal activity,” said Kida, " our [highway] cuts through Camanche but we still want to be able to contribute to the neighboring towns.”

Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR’s) have been used by Law Enforcement for at least a decade. The international association of police says around 70% of all crimes committed utilize vehicles, so the device has been an effective tool to assist in catching criminals.

However, Flock Safety itself has raised questions nationally over whether it violates the privacy rights of citizens, and the American Civil Liberties Union is speaking out against the technology.

“Who has access to this data?” asked Veronica Fowler, the Communications Director of ACLU Iowa, “It’s an important question and I don’t know if we can answer that very clearly because it’s such a massive system with so many points of access.”

The Flock Safety system works by first snapping a picture of a passing license plate.

That license plate is then automatically entered into Flock Safety’s cloud network. 1,400 other law enforcement agencies across the country also upload their information into this network and are able to share the data with each other if they so choose, entering into a Memorandum of Understanding.

Then, the license plate is ran against state and national databases--such as the NCIC, which is governed by the FBI.

“If a vehicle associated with a wanted offender passes by, then law enforcement gets a real-time alert,” said Holly Beilin, a representative for Flock Safety, “they can [then] go after it.”

But therein lies the problem for the ACLU, which claims that Flock Safety is collecting a massive surveillance database of private citizens’ whereabouts.

“How do we prevent humans from behaving like humans and misusing the data?” asked Fowler.

One of the biggest controversies about Flock Safety cameras is that they aren’t only sold to law enforcement.

“We do sell to neighborhoods and HOAs and property managers,” said Beilin.

In March 2022, the ACLU released a 13-page report that detailed its findings on Flock Safety’s system, including how it collected data, shared the data, and whether the system is constitutional.

In the report, the ACLU states that it found that while non-law enforcement customers won’t receive alerts for plates that are associated with a crime database, they can create their own “hot list” of license plates that will alarm them when that vehicle is in the area.

UPDATE: Flock Safety reached out to TV6 about this, stating, “private customers do not have the ability to create custom “hot lists.” Private customers cannot receive real-time notifications or any “alarms.”

Flock Safety claims the goal of the program is to bring citizens of a community and law enforcement together. “It helps private citizens of a community work in concert with their law enforcement to help everyone in public safety,” said Beilin.

According to a Washington Post article that came out in October 2021, the program had been a subject of debate amongst members of a Colorado Homeowner’s Association, with some members claiming the camera gave neighbors the tools to spy on each other.

Additionally, every camera associated with Flock Safety, according to the ACLU’s report, automatically uploads and scans license plate reads against the national crime database whether it is associated with law enforcement or not. Law enforcement will then be pinged if a license plate comes up as wanted in the system.

Update: Flock Safety clarified with TV6 that private customers’ cameras are only accessed by police if both parties enter into a formal agreement allowing such access.

“It’s giving the green light on a large national data collection company to come into its community and collect data on everyone in the community,” said Fowler.

The ethical side of surveillance is something Flock Safety said it takes very seriously, however, by promising that it doesn’t sell its data to third party buyers.

They also say they only keep their data scans for 30 days, then the data is deleted permanently from the system.

They also say the system doesn’t list out the license plates the cameras record, instead the system requires a timecode and reason for a customer to search a license plate.

“All you can search is things like time frames, color of vehicle, specific plates,” said Beilin, “and it has to be a search, not just a list of plates that have passed the camera.”

But the ACLU says without a law set in place, the public is relying on Flock Safety’s word that it handles its information the way it says it does.

“Companies change their policy overtime,” said Fowler.

So far, the government only regulates surveillance if it considers it to be a “state actor,” otherwise known as a person or entity that is acting on behalf of a government body and therefore subject to the limitations impose by the United States Constitution, including the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendements.

Flock safety is not currently considered to be a state’s agent, so as a private company it has the prerogative to decide what to do with the data it collects.

As a customer of the company, the city of Camanche has guarenteed their system in use will delete data permanently after 30 days.

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