Police will soon be able to track anywhere you drive in the US

By Alfred Ng

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License plate readers are powerful technology that allow police to keep track of a car's movements across a city. 

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Police often rely on automatic license plate readers to track the movement of cars in their jurisdiction. A surveillance company's new initiative looks to expand those capabilities nationwide. 

On Tuesday, Flock Safety, which makes a license plate reader, announced the "Total Analytics Law Officers Network," or TALON. The network looks to connect the 400 law enforcement agencies using its cameras, allowing agencies that opt in to view camera data from other regions. 

The company said it has cameras in 700 cities, essentially creating a nationwide camera network for tracking car movements if they're all connected. 

License plate readers are a powerful surveillance tool, raising privacy concerns for people driving on public streets. Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union in March 2019 showed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents used license plate readers to track people's movements, accessing a database that logs 150 million to 200 million scans every month.  

An Electronic Frontier Foundation study in 2015 also found that Black and Latino residents were more likely to be scanned by license plate readers, raising concerns about racial injustice regarding the surveillance technology. 

License plate readers are like facial recognition for cars: The cameras are trained to pick up the codes on the back of your vehicle, and log the time and location. Like facial recognition, license plate readers are also prone to errors.

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In early August, Aurora police blamed a faulty license plate reader for misidentifying a vehicle as stolen, which led to officers holding a Black family, with children as young as 6, at gunpoint. 

Flock Safety has also faced criticism from privacy experts for its consumer offers -- where residents in richer neighborhoods in at least 30 states pay up to $2,000 a camera to track cars that pass through their communities. 

The technology is also used by repossession companies and by landlords who don't want unauthorized cars parking in their lots. 

For police, the tech offers the capability to track cars throughout the day without ever stepping out the door. The cameras log license plates as they move through neighborhoods, and could potentially mark people at sensitive locations like a mental health facility or a religious institution, in addition to spotting those with outstanding traffic tickets or warrants. 

With TALON, Flock Safety wants to provide that capability across the entire country, meaning police in one state could track a car's movements as it goes hundreds of miles away. In a blog post announcing the network, Flock Safety detailed how a police killing in Georgia had been solved because of license plate readers set up along the gunman's escape route to Alabama. 

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Flock Safety said it was able to track a suspect driving through Georgia and Alabama after he drove past 100 license plate readers, marked by the blue dots.

Flock Safety

The network works when someone types in a license plate number and gets returns back on where cameras may have scanned the car. Only police departments that have opted in to the network can return results, and they can opt to provide data to nearby jurisdictions or to an entire nationwide database. 

"TALON is an easier, more transparent way for law enforcement agencies to share the critical information needed to fight crime," Garrett Langley, Flock Safety's CEO, said in a statement. 

The crowdsourcing model is similar to that of Amazon's Ring, a video doorbell company that's partnered with more than 1,400 police departments and allows law enforcement agencies to request footage on a massive scale

This model often circumvents public input -- your city council may be able to vote on what surveillance tools are in your communities, but now that same data could be given to police in other states. 

"We often think of dystopian surveillance as something that's imposed by an authoritarian government," said Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital rights group Fight for the Future. "It's clearer every day that there is an enormous threat posed by privately owned and managed surveillance regimes, which will be weaponized by the rich and powerful to protect not just their wealth but the exploitative system that helped them amass it."

The capability to track any car driving across the US brings up concerns of abuse. In 1998, a police lieutenant in Washington, DC, used license plate readers near a gay bar to blackmail the car owners. In March 2019, prosecutors said a Florida cop used his access to the department's database to get dates, calling at least 150 women with the information he'd gathered since 2012. 

Flock Safety said its national network is designed with an "ethical framework" that protects privacy. It has requirements like data automatically deleting after 30 days and footage being encrypted as a security measure. 

But there are aspects of its guidelines that can't be enforced, like cities using the network only after extensive public input or after ensuring that officers aren't abusing the technology. 

"We are not a governing body that can hold individual officers responsible in the same way that a legislative body could or should," a Flock Safety spokesman said.