Neighborhood groups may be scanning your license plate

Signs at Pickwick Commons neighborhood entrances warn drivers that cameras are capturing footage of their movements. (IBJ photo/Eric Learned)

Homeowners associations across Indianapolis are increasingly partnering with private companies to surveil their neighborhoods with automated license plate readers.

Georgia-based Flock Safety and California-based Vigilant Solutions are among companies that for years have provided the technology to law enforcement agencies, enabling them to identify, catalog and distribute any passing vehicle’s model, color and license plate number. But the firms’ push in recent years to begin offering the same technology to homeowners association presidents has civil liberty advocates looking over their shoulders.

Langley

Flock Safety CEO Garrett Langley said motorists should not see cause for alarm.

“People make a false assumption that we want Big Brother to exist,” he said. “But we believe there’s a world where we can have privacy and safety. We don’t believe there has to be a trade-off.”

More central Indiana neighborhood leaders are starting to embrace that mindset.

Flock said it has put cameras in 14 Indianapolis neighborhoods since launching its neighborhood service three years ago. One of its newer clients is Pickwick Commons, a neighborhood of 77 homes at Ditch Road and West 91st Street, which came aboard about a year ago, according to Jayson Parker, president of its homeowners association.

Flock’s cameras automatically scan vehicles as they pass and can immediately notify associations in instances where the license plate has been reported stolen. Flock also provides associations access to a searchable database, so they can retroactively look up unexpected vehicles near their homes and share screenshots if they suspect a crime has occurred.

Langley said he first thought of offering automated license plate readers to neighborhoods after his Georgia neighborhood was plagued by a string of car break-ins. A police officer told him his neighbor’s doorbell camera was too low-quality to provide vital evidence, so he set about creating a system that provided civilians with the same hardware and software officers use to catch the bad guys.

Raymond

But civil liberties advocates worry about putting such a powerful technology in the hands of the untrained, and about its potential for abuse.

Angie Raymond, an associate professor of business law and ethics at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, said there’s a big difference between a law enforcement agency’s use of the technology and a civilian’s use.

She said she worries about the lack of policies dictating how a civilian can access and use the information. She said automated license plate readers can easily track and disseminate information about neighborhood visitors who have a perfectly legitimate reason for driving down the road.

“Private entities can surveil us without being bound in many instances by the law,” Raymond said. “The big divide is in the way that information is stored, shared, retained and
even gathered.”

Raymond said law enforcement, local governments, universities and other public institutions have certain procedures and policies to practice safe data management. That’s just not the case with the head of a homeowners association.

“They’re tasked with the community space being mowed and [that] the signs you see when you drive in are pretty,” she said. “They don’t have the time or the knowledge to dig into this.”

Raymond said neighborhood leaders considering this method of combating porch pirates need to ask themselves what the data will do, how it will be used, what rules are in place to protect the innocent, and how that data will be shared and stored.

“Those are the conversations you need to have. If you don’t do that, you need to pass,” she said.

‘Nobody was concerned’

Parker

But Parker, Pickwick’s homeowners association president, said he’s comfortable his neighborhood’s two cameras don’t infringe on privacy. He said that he and two other board members are the only ones with access to the cameras’ database and that neighbors trust them to use the data responsibly.

“As a community, we didn’t have any kickback from anybody. Nobody was concerned,” Parker said. “We didn’t hear, ‘No, I don’t want to live in a police state,’ or any of that stuff.”

Pickwick was developed in the mid-1960s and features homes from around $200,000 to more than $800,000. Some of the residents are doctors who work at nearby Ascension St. Vincent Hospital.

Two years ago, Parker said, residents were calling him to report their mail and packages had been stolen.

“The mail theft was happening multiple times a week. Apparently, they were driving into the neighborhood at 3 a.m. and going through mailboxes,” he said.

The homeowners association’s nine-member board considered several surveillance companies, but wound up choosing Flock Safety for a number of reasons, including the fact that cameras would cost just $4,000 a year and the company’s interface was simple to use through a smartphone app or on a desktop.

The neighborhood announces the presence of the cameras with signs at entrances. Since installing the cameras, Parker said, his neighbors have stopped calling to report mail theft.

In one instance, he was able to provide a landscaping company with the license plate and footage of a vehicle that pulled up and stole a leaf blower.

“What they were able to do with that, I don’t know. The point is, now they have a suspect. They’ve got a car; they’ve got a license plate. They can follow that up,” Parker said. “We provided them with information that they should be able to [use to] solve a crime. Before, we wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

He said the success Pickwick Commons saw inspired North Willow Farms, a neighborhood with 450 homes on the west side of Ditch Road, to reach out to Flock to have its own
system installed.

Partly because of Flock’s success marketing to neighborhoods, it is on a growth tear, with employment on track to triple this year, to 160. The firm helped fund its growth by raising $63 million in venture capital this year.

The company now claims its automated license plate readers used by law enforcement agencies, neighborhood associations and other clients solve two or more crimes a day, and the data collected by those cameras assists in five investigations each hour.

“It’s enough for a detective to plug in the license plates and get to work,” Langley said. “I still get goosebumps every minute of the day when we hear of success stories from this neighborhood, or a police department clearing some heinous crimes.”

Business or public safety?

Kedzierski

Flock’s rival Vigilant Solutions, a division of Motorola Solutions, also has built a substantial neighborhood business, though it would not provide specifics on its Indianapolis clients.

About half of Vigilant’s customers are in law enforcement, and the other half are neighborhood associations and other commercial clients.

“We’ve partnered with both government law enforcement agencies—as well as corporate and residential entities—for quite some time,” said John Kedzierski, Motorola Solutions’ senior vice president and general manager of video security and analytics.

“Having that collaboration with local agencies is extremely important, and of interest to both law enforcement and a private community.”

Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he’s watched Vigilant and Flock battle for market share for quite some time.

Maass

The not-for-profit has amassed public records from agencies across the nation to determine where—and to what extent—police are using surveillance technologies.

The public might be surprised how widespread the use of license plate readers has become.

In 2019 alone, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department scanned 1.1 million license plates and the Indiana State Police scanned 244,683 license plates using Vigilant Solutions’ automated license plate readers.

Maass said most license plate reader companies do a poor job of establishing and conveying sufficient privacy policies to their users. He said Flock’s promise to hard-delete all data after 30 days is a start.

He’s not convinced the companies’ main priority is safety.

“In my estimation, license plate reader systems are more about business than they are about public safety. It’s a mass surveillance technology that doesn’t care if you’re doing anything wrong or anything suspicious,” Maass said.•

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11 thoughts on “Neighborhood groups may be scanning your license plate

  1. It would make more sense for a general camera system to be installed vs a plate reader. Your HOA has no business knowing each person who comes to your house. But a camera system professionally installed could keep and eye out for issues while requiring law enforcement to identify the person/vehicle

  2. Sounds like the beginning of how Google and Facebook have profited off of our data and lives. Everyone should be afraid of this. It doesn’t matter whether or not you’re a criminal. I agree with Jason that a normal camera system solves these problems. Plate readers, especially for people who aren’t police, should be illegal. FYI to all Indiana readers, red light cameras are also illegal in your state. Why allow abusive HOA’s to take away privacy when it’s even illegal for the government to do so?

    1. So-called “red light cameras” do not take pictures of every vehicle passing through an intersection. Instead, they only capture a picture of a vehicle that runs the red light. Furthermore, the red light running occurs on public streets, where numerous courts have ruled there is no right to privacy. As someone who was t-boned by a red light runner se efal years ago, and who see numerous vehicles ignoring red lights throughout Indianapolis on a daily basis, I am a support of both speed cameras and red light cameras.

    2. @Brent almost all neighborhoods are also public streets. Sorry, but I don’t buy that you see “numerous vehicles ignoring red lights in a daily basis”. There are cars going through a pink yellow when the other lanes are not even rolling yet, but I literally can’t remember the last time I saw a car just blow through a red light.

  3. I’m an HOA Board president of a complex with 137 units. This past fall, we had 14 AC compressor units stolen over a 2-month period. Tried cameras and signage, primarily as a deterrent. Not good enough resolutions to help police. Finally caught the crew because of noise.

    Our complex roads are private. We have explored putting in security gates, but the cost if very high ($30,000 to $50,000) and presents issues of access to services to the residents (e.g. delivery).

    Our residents had concerns over the camera; I believe that those concerns are legitimate and we should have had those policies in place before any implementation. We were in an emergency situation and temporarily addressed the issue by having only one person (the former Board president) have access to the images. We put in a request to our counsel almost immediately to help draft good, open procedures, but that work is not done yet. The difficulty is the lack of common knowledge in the legal community of best practices. Prof. Raymond should focus on helping the legal community “tool up” to help establish best practices.

    I believe that Prof. Raymond’s comments reflect a misunderstanding of the complexity running an HOA, particularly one governing condominiums. We do, indeed, mow the grass! We also refer issues to our legal counsel on a regular basis dealing with issues regarding insurance, building maintenance, proper meeting rules of procedure, and HOA member contribution collection for common maintenance needs.

    We are faced with increasingly sophisticated attacks on our property and safety. To categorically reject a possible solution simply because it is legally “complicated” seems a bit ridiculous. It is as important to let criminals know that we have images than it is to have the images themselves. Help us move forward in using and storing information responsibly. Do not simply erect obstacles to potentially good solutions out of fear of abuse or contempt for our community needs.

    1. Would love to see the Learned Professor sit on a few HOA committees (unpaid of course). Lets see her handle unpaid dues, fences and improvements that don’t comply with covenants, or even be in charge of keeping the signs and common grass areas “pretty”. Pro Tip— 7 out of 10 vendor respondents, don’t have insurance, don’t communicate, or are simply incompetent. Maybe IBJ should describe her job (paid, of course) as showing up and talking to a class for a couple hours a week.

    2. There are cities that have removed these devices due to legal issues. Fishers has plans to install several along 96th Street around the Interstate 69 intersection.

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