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Automatic License Plate Readers Are The Latest Neighborhood Perk

Automatic License Plate Readers Are The Latest Neighborhood Perk


from the neighborhood-watch-on-electronic-steroids dept

Round-the-clock surveillance is becoming a part of everyday life here in the United States. Unfortunately, unlike CCTV-infested London, the steady influx of cameras in the US is the result of police-private company partnerships and the efforts of friends and neighbors.

Ring, owned by Amazon, has nailed down 95% of the growing doorbell/camera market. Its growth is largely due to its partnerships with law enforcement agencies which acquire the cameras for cheap and hand them out for free to residents. The implication is that the recipient of a free doorbell camera will be willing to help out law enforcement in the future… or at least share footage regularly on Ring's snitch app so cops don't have to ask for it.

Ring's control of the market comes paired with control of law enforcement agencies. Ring writes press releases, provides portals for footage requests, and requires cops to run statements and comments past the company before releasing them to the public.

A doorbell camera is the obvious extension of private surveillance. People have been installing their own security cameras for years. But prior to this, installing security cameras didn't involve picking up the tech from cop shops. However, the new growth market for homegrown surveillance uses tech that used to be exclusively reserved for government agencies: automatic license plate readers.

ALPRs are the new peering through the blinds suspiciously. Entities with an interest in knowing everything that goes on in their neighborhoods are the early adopters. Who thinks they need to be all up in everybody's business? Well, it's entities that have been all up in everybody's business for years: homeowners associations and those residing in gated communities. The justification is crime prevention, but it's happening in neighborhoods where crime is the exception, rather than the rule. And it's being instituted without the explicit permission of those now involuntarily participating in private surveillance projects.

It's not just for HOAs and gated communities any more. A new report by Sam Dean of the LA Times shows ALPRs are being deployed by any private citizen with the cash on hand and the desire to do so. Again, claims of safety and crime prevention are being made, but the ALPR installation covered here is deployed in one of Los Angeles' safest suburbs. (h/t Elizabeth Joh)

On a quiet road south of Ventura Boulevard, two cameras on a pole watch over the road, facing opposite directions.

A block away, another brace of cameras sit sentry. Together, they constantly film the two points of entry to a closed loop of public streets in Sherman Oaks.

Nearby, on a dual-screen setup in the basement of his hillside home, Robert Shontell pulls up hundreds of snippets of footage captured by the cameras earlier that day. Each shows a car, time-stamped and tagged with the make, model, paint color and license plate.

In this case, residents pooled funds to buy the cameras. Flock Safety is the pioneer in this domestic surveillance sector and its cameras run about $2,000 per, including use of its plate-cataloging software. The company addresses privacy concerns by stating that only purchasers have access to photos and footage. But that's essentially meaningless when camera users are free to turn it over to anyone they want to, including law enforcement. Also, there's not much "privacy" when 30 different households have access to the footage, as is the case here.

Flock's head of marketing says its cameras are solving "two crimes a day." I suppose that's better than none at all, but this aggressive push for regular people to adopt and deploy surveillance tech against friends, neighbors, and anyone else who might wander into these neighborhoods ultimately makes it easier for the government to roll out more pervasive surveillance of its own. It's pretty hard to argue against the government's encroachment when you're in the encroachment business yourself.

Filed Under: alpr, license plates, neighborhood watch, surveillance

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