Meet the new neighborhood watch: License-plate reading cameras

Drive into Jo McCoy’s Brookhaven neighborhood and it feels like your standard metro Atlanta subdivision. Known simply as “Sidestreet,” 39 large homes make up a close community of wide streets and well-kept lawns.

But visiting Sidestreet comes with a catch: You’re being watched. And your license plate is being recorded.

From a light post at the community’s entrance, a small device takes pictures of anything that enters or exits, logging the license plate numbers of cars and storing the footage for a month.

“It literally will show you everything. Cars, people walking. There’s a fox in the neighborhood that crosses the street every now and then,” said McCoy, 73. “Hopefully it will help deter criminals from coming into the neighborhood.”

A Flock license plate reader, powered by a solar panel, is shown in the Sidestreet subdivision in Brookhaven. The license plate reader takes a picture of each license plate that enters the neighborhood and keeps track of each vehicle’s comings and goings. The five board members of the neighborhood’s homeowners association have access to the camera’s records.(Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

icon to expand image

Once a tool used only by professional law enforcement, cameras that read license plates have quietly become more commonplace in metro Atlanta, and are now operated by private citizens and communities. Coupled with the popular personal doorbell cameras from companies like Ring and Nest, never before has so much surveillance data been in the hands of private citizens. And it’s all legal.

The technology itself isn’t new. Many police departments have their own automatic license plate readers to scan popular intersections. And some vehicle repossession companies attach them to their cars, driving streets and parking lots scanning for cars marked for repossession.

What is new is the number of private communities now leasing the cameras to watch their streets and homes — sometimes sharing their data with law enforcement.

The Atlanta-based maker of license-plate reading cameras, Flock Safety, said about 100 neighborhoods, apartment complexes or private land owners in metro Atlanta now have automatic readers. Some of the largest police departments in the state have formal agreements with Ring and Flock, allowing officers to access some of the privately gathered footage while investigating crimes, if homeowners agree to it.

A car approaches a sign notifying drivers their license plates are being recorded as they drive into the McGinnis Reserve community Monday, July 29, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

icon to expand image

Many officials and residents see the technology as an essential addition to the police’s crime-fighting toolkit, and said privately owned license plate cameras have already helped solve several crimes in residential areas. But homeowners are asking about the privacy risk the cameras pose, and the potential for over-surveillance or misuse.

“These surveillance tools might protect public safety, but they also can give power to people to use it at their discretion — not necessarily for fair or good purposes,” said Peter Swire, a privacy expert and Georgia Tech professor. “Solving crimes is good. Putting this video in the hands of busybody neighbors might not be so good.”

Privacy vs. safety

The Sidestreet neighborhood decided to install a Flock camera in late July after a resident’s car was stolen, and their old security camera was unhelpful in getting good footage of the car, McCoy said. The system costs $2,000 for a two-year lease, but the company emphasizes that the individual communities own the footage and data from their camera.

The solar-powered, motion-activated Flock system can tell how often every car comes into the subdivision, and knows that some vehicles belong to residents.

McCoy sat at her computer on a recent afternoon, scrolling through the list of cars that entered her neighborhood during a 10-hour period. She does this every day, she said, “just out of curiosity.” As a member of the homeowners association board, she is allowed to view all of the footage from the camera.

She spotted one car that entered the neighborhood just four of the last 18 days, according to the camera.

“That’s weird,” McCoy said. “Oh, I know why, because they were out of town.”

Many of her neighbors supported buying the camera, McCoy said, though some had concerns about the 24/7 surveillance.

This sign greets people driving into neighborhoods with Flock Safety cameras.

Credit: Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

icon to expand image

Credit: Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“There are people here who think it’s an intrusion of their privacy, and they don’t like it. (They) don’t think we should’ve gotten it,” said McCoy, a retired health care administrator. But Flock says its system doesn’t collect any private data, and McCoy can’t see where the cars go after entering Sidestreet. Personally, she added, “I don’t care that you can see what time I come in and out. Who cares?”

Flock CEO Garrett Langley said he was inspired to make the product because he felt there were more non-violent offenses happening around Atlanta that the camera could help solve. Now, the company estimates it helps solve two crimes a day nationwide.

Just last month, police in Sandy Springs said they arrested a man accused of stealing packages and mail from homes, thanks in part to a neighborhood Flock camera. The camera captured the suspect's license plate when he was in the area, authorities said, and they later found him with eight credit cards with different names and 17 pieces of mail with assorted names.

Langley, a Georgia Tech graduate, is well aware of the privacy and surveillance concerns associated with the devices.

“It would be irresponsible to say any system like this is without the potential for misuse,” he said. But he emphasized that public roads and the license plates of cars that travel them are public information. “Compared to the amount of information you share on Facebook and online, it’s really not a lot.”

According to Flock, the data gathered belongs to the camera’s user but like other surveillance systems, the data could be subject to court subpoenas. The company encourages larger communities to internally safeguard its video recordings by only allowing a select few residents to have permanent access.

Neighborhoods can opt in to give the local police department access to footage while they are investigating a crime, giving pause to some privacy experts who say there should be more oversight in place to prevent possible abuses of power.

“When the police get new surveillance powers, I tend to think there should be new accountability mechanisms as well,” privacy expert Swire said.

Residents in the McGinnis Reserve subdivision in Suwanee installed a Flock license-plate reading camera about two weeks ago at the entrance to their 172-home community close to Buford Highway, near a picturesque lake and greenway. They’ve turned to the technology after two home break-ins went unsolved last year. Footage from doorbell cameras wasn’t good enough to identify the burglars or their car.

In a clubhouse looking out on a private pool, neighbors met recently with Flock staff and police officials, who fielded a wide range of questions about how the system works and how the data is used, balancing privacy concerns with their goal to prevent crime.

“I think it’s going to be great, mostly because we’re not a gated community and we are right off a busy road,” resident Kathy Heidish, 75, said of the new camera. “And I think it’s going to be a good way to deter people from coming in.”

Flock Safety representative Ben Francis (center) talks with residents of the McGinnis Reserve community about their newly install surveillance license plate camera Monday, July 29, 2019. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

icon to expand image

‘Everything is being recorded’ 

The advanced technology presents a treasure trove of potential new evidence for local police. Security companies are taking advantage of that. At least 20 local police departments — including DeKalb, Sandy Springs and Marietta — have either purchased their own cameras from Flock or have a relationship with the company allowing them access to some footage, if the community also agrees.

The cameras are also connected to the National Crime Information Center “hot list,” meaning local police who have a partnership with Flock can automatically get an alert every time a camera spots a stolen car, or a car whose owner has a warrant out for their arrest.

“Whenever a car drives by, it’s as if a detective was on the corner taking notes,” Langley, the company CEO, said.

In Marietta, the police department purchased several Flock cameras to station at areas with high crime rates. During a nine-month test run, crime rates dropped 34% in the area with the reader. The police department partly attributed the drop to the cameras, though it did not say how many crimes the camera had helped solve.

Ring's doorbell cameras are known for capturing alarming video of break-ins or package thefts on porches. The Amazon-owned company encourages users to share their pictures or videos on its digital neighborhood watch app, called "Neighbors," and allows many police departments to access that footage.

The Ring video doorbells have become more popular across metro Atlanta in recent years.

icon to expand image

“We live in a world now where everything is being recorded. It certainly helps us do our jobs when things happen,” Dunwoody police spokesman Sgt. Robert Parsons said. “It’s easier for us to put the pieces together.”

Some, however, worry the system could cause homeowners to allege a crime in circumstances where there isn't one, and possibly perpetuate racial profilingExperts say people of color, particular African-Americans, are more likely to be targeted by police or deemed "suspicious" because of their race.

“It’s quite evident that profiling exists in America,” said Mereda Davis Johnson, a DeKalb County commissioner who chairs the public safety committee. “Me being black, and having a son that is a young adult … it’s just something that I have to be aware of, because I know it’s there and I have to balance that with public safety.”

Johnson, who has video cameras around her home, initially expressed concern that the Ring and Flock footage could be misused or manipulated. She voted to allow DeKalb police to participate in both partnerships, however, and said the county should review the programs in a year.

The Flock cameras are solar-powered.

Credit: Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

icon to expand image

Credit: Casey Sykes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Parsons acknowledged that Ring footage sometimes leads homeowners to make vague reports of a “suspicious person.” He said one Ring user posted a video alleging that a fake police officer had knocked on their door. It was actually a fully uniformed Dunwoody officer who was there for a legitimate reason, Parsons said.

Swire, the privacy expert, said the police should not be able to access personal surveillance footage without a warrant, and encouraged Atlanta-area governments who want to share home surveillance video to adopt official rules like Seattle's, which regulate how departments can see the potential evidence.

“Police access to videos without any warrant,” he said, “is a step towards having ‘Big Brother’ cameras wherever we go.”

How it Works

Flock Safety says it protects residents’ privacy by implementing a number of safeguards in its system. Here are some details about how the automatic license plate reader system works:

  • The cameras are motion-activated and take snapshots of anything that moves past them. If it sees a license plate from any state, it will automatically log it into a database.
  • Neighbors are able to register their cars so the system knows they live there. They can also prevent the camera from ever recording their vehicle.
  • The data is automatically deleted after 30 days, but it can be downloaded and saved in that time.
  • Communities can set their own rules for who can access the Flock system. Usually, members of the homeowners association have permanent access, and others can see the footage after they report a crime.
  • Neighborhoods have to opt in to share footage with police in the case of a crime.