Neighborhood associations are installing license plate readers to privately police who drives on their streets

A new piece over at OneZero examines the rising trend of local neighborhood associations installing private license plate readers to keep tabs on who comes and goes from their precious white suburbs;

ALPR technology, invented in 1976 by the U.K.’s Police Scientific Development Branch, has become a popular law enforcement tool over the past decade and is now commonly used to track down alleged lawbreakers, to gather information about vehicles of interest, and to track down individuals who owe fines.

But now, ALPR companies are targeting the private realm as well. “Live in an HOA or neighborhood? Work in law enforcement?” reads the intro text on Flock’s website. In either case, the call to action is the same: “Use license plate readers to capture evidence and stop crime.” The company, which was founded in 2017, claims 700,000 neighbors in 400 cities and 35 states live in communities that rely on its technology.

At least seven homeowner associations (HOAs) in San Diego County, 100 neighborhoods in Georgia, 10 in the Denver area, and dozens throughout North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, and elsewhere have installed A.I.-infused ALPRs manufactured by Flock and a handful of other companies such as Vigilant Solutions and Obsidian Integration. Flock provides a calculator that recommends the number of cameras that neighborhoods should install: For 50 homes with two entrances, it recommends between two to four cameras; for 100 homes with five entrances, it recommends between five and 10. Each camera costs $2,000 per year. ALPR’s expansion beyond law enforcement may be one reason investors have bet more than $35 million in venture capital funding on Flock. The company closed its most recent and largest round of funding — $15 million — in March.

The article explores the dystopian impact of this utterly excessive surveillance profiteering on some of the neighborhoods that have willingly embraced it. Even if — somehow — a neighborhood association was able to install this license plate readers in a way that wasn’t creepy and authoritarian — say there was the rare instance of outsider crime that they genuinely hoped to catch — the amount of data they would end up collecting would render the whole project moot. Suffice to say: no one in these communities is actually safer, or happier.

Since Fourth Amendment privacy rules do not apply to private citizens, HOA boards are not subject to any oversight. “Whatever motivates an individual gatekeeper — racial biases, frustration with another neighbor, even disagreements among family members — could all be used in conjunction with ALPR records to implicate someone in a crime or in any variety of other legal but uncomfortable situations,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that defends civil liberties in the digital world.

Neighborhood Watch Has a New Tool: License-Plate Readers [Ella Fassler / One Zero / Medium]

How Automatic License Plate Recognition (ALPR) technology works

Image: Public Domain

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Thom Dunn