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  • Writer's pictureAndy Murphy

What Is A Flock Camera?


What is a Flock Camera

Flock: The new license plate reader in your town


A new surveillance system has been quietly popping up across America. Flock Safety is a private technology company based in Atlanta. Founded in 2017, Flock has created a license plate reader camera and data storage for law enforcement, schools, businesses, and even homeowner associations.

Flock Safety positions itself as a company that helps to deter crime by providing data about where and when cars have been tagged on its camera system using artificial intelligence. While this may be a great way to assist law enforcement in making arrests many people feel this is a privacy concern that every community needs to assess.


When a vehicle passes a Flock camera a photo and video is taken. AI technology pulls the license plate number and categorizes the vehicle characteristics. If you are not suspected of a crime, your information is logged and can be searched before being deleted after 30 days. If you are on a police “hot list” then the location data is pushed to law enforcement immediately for a response.

License plate recognition is an established technology. For years police vehicles have been fitted with automatic license plate readers (ALPR). License plate readers have also been used in parking enforcement made popular in 2008 with A&E’s show Parking Wars.


Flock Safety has made an affordable, stand-alone camera and network to spot and alert owners to plates associated with crime or unwanted behavior. The Flock database feeds to places like police departments and the National Crime Information Center.


Watch What Is A Flock Camera On YouTube


What Is A Flock Camera?


A Flock camera is a license plate reader (LPR) that connects to a vast network of other Flock cameras that gather data about what plates pass their many locations. The most popular one that I’ve spotted is the Flock Safety Falcon™ LF. This camera is used for two-lane roads with light to moderate traffic. Think of your town’s main roads, but not the interstate.


What many cities like about the Falcon and other Flock cameras is that they are solar-powered. They do not require a municipality to run power or data lines to the camera which makes installing one easy and fast.

Not to mention the self-contained camera bypasses all sorts of local red tape to get one up and running. And some cities like Providence, RI can reach a deal with Flock Safety to get the cameras free for a year without as much as a public meeting about them.


While I have not seen the inside of a Flock camera, it’s safe to say they transmit data using cellular networks like 5G and LTE. The data is viewed on FlockOS® which is a program specifically for Flock users.


What Information Does Flock Collect?


On the surface, Flock Cameras capture more data than standard license plate readers that are made only to photograph the plate itself. Thanks to their Vehicle Fingerprint® Technology, these cameras can profile vehicles by color, type, roof rack, and even bumper stickers. In addition, they track how often a vehicle passes any camera and can even predict routes. It’s important to note that they do not use facial recognition technology.


Here's a list of data Flock says they collect:

  • License plate image

  • Vehicle image

  • Vehicle characteristics

  • License plate number

  • License Plate State

  • Date

  • Time

  • Location

This data can be searched by Flock customers in local, state, and federal law enforcement. This means that small police agencies can search a nationwide database of license plates and car profiles to search for a vehicle of interest.


There is restricted access to the database among police. Not every officer in every department can use it. While this can be a great tool for small departments, it also feeds fears of mass surveillance of private citizens and potential abuse by law enforcement.

It’s not unheard of for officers to illegally track their former partners using police resources. While there are safeguards in place, a vast network like this can be abused for personal gain, which Flock Safety does not condone. But this leads to an important question: Can you opt out of Flock’s data collection?


Can You Opt Out Of The Flock Database?


While Flock Safety does not address this issue directly, it seems that there is no way to opt out of your data being collected by their surveillance network for law enforcement. Flock is quick to point out that license plate recognition and similar data collection are legal because as the courts have upheld time and time again there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in visible public areas. The same laws that protect journalists can be used to protect for-profit companies engaged in mass data collection.

For civilian usage like businesses and healthcare facilities, there is no way to keep your plate from being tracked. If you pass through the parking lot of a big box home improvement store, they can take your plate and car details for their use. There seems to be no way to opt out of this collection, sharing, and retention of your data.


For homeowner association clients, there is somewhat of a solution, the HOA Safe List. “The HOA Safe List feature allows neighborhood residents to register their license plate number and opt to be eliminated from captured footage.” But this is only for non-police use and residents have to self-register with Flock and the HOA in order to have their footage automatically deleted.


Flock does point out that they delete their footage on a rolling 30 basis. However, that schedule can change increase or decrease on a case-by-case basis and a few other factors. But also logged vehicles and reports can be downloaded and saved by users – private or law enforcement.


Flock does say that their footage can’t be sold, published, or disclosed in any way for commercial purposes. So, for now, car dealerships can target drivers who pass by their lots and send them direct marketing mailers.


Flock Safety Transparency


If you are curious about what data is collected in your area, Flock Safety does have what they call transparency reports. On a special web page, visitors can see limited stats on what information is collected by a police department, how many cars are recorded, hotlist hits, and searches done in the last 30-day period. Here is a transparency report for the Piedmont Police Department in California.

Flock Transparency Piedmont Police Department
Screenshot of Piedmond Police Department Flock Transparency page 11-27-23

Not much data is given here and most of the information can also be found on their privacy policy page. The information given is useful but really doesn’t tell readers much. And the amount of information varies from department to department, some more ‘transparent’ than others. What’s notable about the Piedmont transparency page is the inclusion of a search audit CSV spreadsheet download and their stated data retention is 60 days.


When looking at another known police department using Flock cameras near my area, I did look at their search audit document. It was a CSV spreadsheet download that had a search ID number, user ID number, search date, camera count, and reason. While none of the information given could be deciphered on the spreadsheet it did give a look into how the police in this jurisdiction were using the Flock database. Reasons included hit and run, shoplifting, weapon violation, missing person, drugs, theft, and DUI just to name a few.

Is Flock Data Subject To FOIA?


The Freedom of Information Act grants citizens the right to request access to records from any federal agency. Generally speaking, you should be able to request the information your local police department has on you from Flock. You’ll need to research how to make an open records request from the agency.


You may also request emails from specific government employees with the words ALPR, Flock, and license plate reader. Note that there are legal reasons that would allow the agency to deny your request. Since Flock Safety is a private company, they do not have to comply with FOIA and do not offer open records requests.


Are Flock Cameras Legal?


In short, Flock cameras are legal. As they point out, there is no reasonable right to privacy in public. This is no different than a photographer snapping a photo of a celebrity in a bathing suit on a beach or a journalist asking the mayor a question on the sidewalk.


Also, note that the license plate on your vehicle is not your personal property, it belongs to the government. It is issued to you and the information that you provide is logged by the government. It is not reasonable to expect privacy in a public place with government-issued property.


While you may not like it, police and private companies can build a robust surveillance system under our current laws. States may want to reconsider what data can be collected in public for government or private use.


What Do Flock Cameras Look Like?


Flock cameras are elegant in their simplicity. You can always spot them because of their signature look. The camera is mounted to a tall, black pole with a titled solar panel at the top.

Flock Camera
Flock camera in a business parking lot

Cameras do not always have to be mounted to a pole. They can also be attached to existing power poles and traffic control devices which can make them more difficult to spot. The unobtrusive surveillance camera can be placed anywhere and blend in with its environment. You may drive by one every day and not notice it. That’s part of good surveillance.


Where Are Flock Cameras?


Estimates from 2022 have Flock cameras in more than 1,500 cities and photographing more than 1 million vehicles a month. It seems like every time I drive through my community, I see a new one. The Art of Surveillance has a running list of police departments that have purchased cameras from Flock Safety.


Flock and police departments are hesitant to publish maps of their camera locations because they are concerned that people with bad intent will target them for vandalism. While this is a valid point, it seems to push aside the transparency and public location arguments.


If the cameras are in public places where there is no right to privacy, then why work so hard to conceal their locations? There is a user-made Google map of the Milwaukee area made by a reporter that you can see here.


What Are The Benefits Of Flock Cameras?


Certainly, Flock cameras can provide needed information in a timely manner to law enforcement to help stop crime. Plate recognition has long been used by law enforcement to track criminals, make arrests, and serve warrants.


I’ve spoken with several police officers about Flock cameras, and they see them as a great advantage. Having a passive camera collect data about who is coming and going in their community could help reduce crime and promote safety.

Stock image of a police traffic stop

Recently, a 14-year-old girl went missing in my community. (She was found and returned home.) Police were able to find out she’d gone with an older male and was believed to be living in his car around the county. While I don’t have confirmation, I can’t imagine that they didn’t pass a Flock camera at some point.


For police, how valuable would it be to receive a real-time hit that the car they are looking for just passed a Flock camera? Plate readers have been used in the past for similar cases, but generally, they are mounted to a patrol car and can require an officer to be present. The passive camera works 24/7 watching for plates that have been deemed significant by police.


Similarly, footage of cars captured on private security cameras from a robbery can be cross-referenced by police. For example, an ATM was stolen from a gas station overnight. The gas station footage shows a white, Ford F-150 take the ATM. That footage can be given to law enforcement who then can search for white pickup trucks on the Flock network in the area before and after the crime. A hit there could be a lead to solve the case quickly.


Not only can government agencies own and operate Flock cameras, but private businesses can, too. In my area, a big box home improvement store uses Flock as part of its inventory control to combat retail theft. However, private businesses do not have access to the wider law enforcement network to look up who owns what plate. Businesses can look up license plates on a variety of data broker sites for a fee.


But this big box store can build an internal database of cars they feel are involved in the theft of merchandise. Then they can pass those plates on to other stores to alert security that a possible theft may occur in their store. Add this to the fact that stores already using facial recognition and you’ve got quite a robust surveillance system for retailers.

Private businesses have the option to share their data with local police departments, it’s not mandatory. Many businesses do because they want to help combat crime on their property. It may be hard to tell if a local store shares data with the police, so you may need to ask the store manager about their data-sharing policy.


Privacy Concerns


If you are concerned about the mass surveillance of private citizens by the government, you are not alone. On its face, Flock cameras can capture data in public places where the law has upheld that there is no expectation of privacy. And while you may feel that these cameras have the ability to assist law enforcement, the greater issue is that all citizens are being tracked just as suspected criminals are. To license plate readers, there is no determination of guilt, everyone is recorded – everyone is reported.


If the cameras become as popular as the company hopes, law enforcement may have the ability to know the comprehensive movements of private citizens regardless of if they are suspected of a crime. This could create a great threat to citizen privacy and have legal implications.

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Business and neighborhood clients are precluded from searching the nationwide database that law enforcement can utilize. But Flock cameras, no matter who owns them, can contribute to the greater law enforcement searchable database. This essentially makes every business and HOA that has a Flock camera a potential police informant.


Also, for citizens to consider is the question of who polices the database. While Flocks says they delete the data after 30 days, there are no laws that force them to do it. Are private citizens supposed to take the company’s word for it? Consumers have already seen abuses of collected data from companies like Ring, Tesla, and 23andMe. Not to mention the ever-present threat of a data breach.


What happens if Flock Safety is bought out by another company? For now, Flock seems to have a good grasp on the privacy issue. What protects citizens if a large company buys them out and changes the user agreement and data collection policies? What if that hypothetical company is in another, hostile country?


I am personally not opposed to license plate readers for use in Amber alerts, tracking criminals fleeing a scene, or a hundred other useful law enforcement applications. However, I draw the line at the government tracking its citizens unless there is reasonable suspicion that they are involved in a crime. This technology should not be used to create detailed records of citizen travel, but that’s what mass databases can be used for.


At what point does ALPR surveillance become an invasion of privacy? For now, there are not that many ALPR cameras in every community. A robust amount of data can’t be found on us currently, but soon that may be an issue. At some point there will be too many cameras that can track our behavior, make AI-generated predictions, and the line of invading private citizen’s privacy will occur and the courts will need to settle that.


The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has written a paper on potential privacy concerns.

Is Flock Safety Nefarious?

No, Flock Safety is not nefarious. In fact, they seem to be a leading tech company based in the US providing jobs and valuable information to police departments, schools, and homeowner associations. Personally, I think Flock is doing a good job, for now, providing their service and explaining to the public what they do. So why does it feel unsettling?


The bigger issue has nothing to do with Flock Safety. The real problem is that America has been sliding down the slippery slope of privacy erosion for the last 15 years. I’m sure Flock employees would say they collect less data than any app on your phone and it is not that different from your state’s DMV selling your data. Flock just passes their data on me directly to the police without my consent. Just sayin…

Americans should be concerned with how data is being collected on them and where it happens. China has long tracked its citizens' movements and the US seems to be more than willing to follow them down that path. Flock gives us the opportunity as communities to discuss how our data should or should not be collected in public and what is done with it so that it can’t be abused, sold, or leveraged in the future.



What is a Flock Camera

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Andy Murphy

Andy Murphy founded The Secure Dad in 2016 with the aspiration to help families live safer, happier lives. What started as a personal blog about family safety has turned into an award-winning podcast, an Amazon best-selling book, and online courses. He focuses his efforts in the areas of home security, situational awareness, and online safety.

 

Andy is a husband and father. His interests include coaching youth basketball, hiking, and trying to figure out his 3D printer.

 

TheSecureDad.com

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