CAMANCHE, Iowa (KWQC) – In April the town of Camanche and its police department announced it would purchase seven cameras from Flock Safety, a company that develops technology to read license plates and automatically scan it against national crime databases.
At least two of the cameras have already been installed and are sitting on U.S. Highway 67, scanning the plates of cars arriving in town.
“Every one that goes through,” Andrew Kida, the City Administrator replied when asked by TV6 whether the cameras scanned all the license plates it went through.
The motivation for the cameras, Kida said, is the ongoing problem the city faces with hit and run cases, car theft cases, as well as the city’s desire to help other police departments in cases of missing persons.
Since 2017, the city of Camanche has had 85 hit and run accidents, 56 car thefts, and 26 missing person cases. Clinton, a larger town nearby, has 843 hit and run reports, 350 stolen cars, and 47 missing people cases since 2017.
“Highways are known to be corridors of trafficking illegal activity,” Kida said, “we [highway] cut through Camanche but we still wanted to contribute to neighboring towns.
Automated License Plate Readers (ALPR’s) have been used by Law Enforcement for at least a decade. The international police association says that almost 70% of all crimes committed use vehicles, so the device is an effective tool to help apprehend criminals.
However, Flock Safety itself has raised questions in the country as to whether it violates citizens ’privacy rights, and the American Civil Liberties Union has spoken out against the technology.
“Who has access to this data?” asked Veronica Fowler, Director of Communications at ACLU Iowa, “This is an important question and I don’t know if we can answer that clearly because it’s a huge system with multiple access points. . “
The Flock Safety system works by first snapping a photo of a passing license plate.
That plaque is automatically entered into Flock Safety’s cloud network, which is shared with 1,400 other law enforcement agencies across the country.
Then, the license plate is run against state and national databases-such as the NCIC, which is managed by the FBI.
“If a car with a wanted offender passes by, then law enforcement will get a real-time alert,” said Holly Beilin, a representative for Flock Safety, “they can [then] follow it. ”
But here’s the problem with the ACLU, which claims Flock Safety collects a large surveillance database on the whereabouts of private citizens.
“How can we prevent people from behaving like humans and abusing data?” Fowler asked.
One of the biggest controversies about Flock Safety cameras is that they are not just sold by law enforcement.
“We sell neighborhoods and HOAs and property managers,” Beilin said.
In March 2022, the ACLU released a 13-page report detailing its findings on the Flock Safety system, including how it collects data, shares the data, and whether the system is constitutional.
The report found that while non-law enforcement customers may not receive alerts for plates related to the crime database, they can create their own “hot list” of alarming plates. them if the vehicle is in place.
Flock Safety says the goal of the program is to unite citizens in a community and law enforcement. “It helps private citizens in a community work with their law enforcement to help everyone with public safety,” Beilin said.
According to a Washington Post article that came out in October 2021, the program has been the subject of debate among members of the Colorado Homeowner’s Association, with some members claiming the camera gives neighbors the tools to -spying on each other.
In addition, each Flock Safety-related camera, according to the ACLU report, will automatically upload and scan license plates that can be read against the national crime database if they are related to law enforcement or not. Law enforcement will then ping if a plaque comes up that the system wants.
“It gives the green light to a large national data collection company to enter its community and collect data for everyone in the community,” Fowler said.
The ethical side of surveillance is something Flock Safety says it takes very seriously, however, by promising that it will not sell its data to third -party buyers.
They also say they only keep their data scans for 30 days, then the data will be permanently deleted from the system.
They also said the system does not list the license plates recorded on the cameras, instead the system requires a timecode and causes a customer to search for a license plate.
“All you can look for are things like time frames, car color, specific plates,” Beilin says, “and it needs to be a search, not just a list of plates that have gone through the camera. . “
But the ACLU says no law has been put in place, the public is relying on Flock Safety’s word that it handles its information the way it says.
“Companies are changing their overtime policy,” Fowler said.
Currently, the government only regulates surveillance if it is considered a “state actor,” if it is not identified as a person or entity acting for a government body and is therefore subject to the limitations imposed by the Constitution of the United States, including the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.
Host safety is currently not considered an agent of the state, so as a private company it has the right to decide what to do with the data it collects.
As a customer of the company, the town of Camanche guarantees that the system they use will delete the data permanently after 30 days.
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