by Robin Kemp
The Clayton County Board of Commissioners is set to vote tonight on a resolution that would use school speed zone camera revenue to expand the county’s existing Flock camera system.
Resolution 2022-61, which is on the consent agenda, would authorize Chief Kevin Roberts “to determine the location for the placement of the new Flock Cameras, and to have the approved vendor install and add the cameras to the County’s system and perform such other acts as necessary to accomplish the intent of the resolution.”
The Clayton Crescent has asked Chairman Jeff Turner how much of that revenue is projected to go to additional Flock cameras. We’ve also asked Chief Kevin Roberts for more details about data collection and whether the existing camera(s) have stopped any crimes.
The cameras, each of which is on a tall black pole topped off by a solar panel, are placed at strategic locations around Clayton County. (You can see one on the northbound side of Jonesboro Road, just before Mt. Zion.) They pick up “vehicle make, color, type, license plate, state of the license plate, missing plate, covered plate, paper plate, and unique vehicle details like roof racks, bumper stickers, and more,” according to the manufacturer.
Having access to a car’s license plate number can help police track down and catch suspects when minutes count. Having more detailed information about a vehicle eliminates the problem of missing, switched, or obscured license plates.
If you aren’t committing a crime, some say, you shouldn’t worry. But if you aren’t committing a crime, should the government maintain a database of your comings and goings? And what is the potential for abuse of that data by rogue cops or vengeful politicians?
One of the things the Flock police camera system tracks is how often a particular vehicle is in a given area. A photo on the company site (above) indicates “Frequent Visitor” as a surveillance option.
The cameras also can detect “Unique Alterations.” If the local sheriff doesn’t like the politician on your bumper sticker, or has a problem with your rainbow or Gadsden flag, your data is in the system. If you feel safer taking your opinions off your truck, you’ve just given up your First Amendment right.
According to Flock Safety’s “Ethics Center” page, “In an era of increasingly lower public safety budgets and understaffed agencies, Flock Safety provides an affordable, effective, and ethically-engineered force multiplier that frees police to spend more time investigating and clearing cases.”
However, not everyone is fond of Big Brother tracking their daily travel routine. At least once, someone has vandalized a school zone camera on Morrow Road by spray-painting the window that protects a tag-reading camera.
In Decatur, Jennifer Sherrock said she came home to find a Flock camera installed on her property (City Manager Andrea Arnold said the camera was installed on the public right of way). Sherrock told Decaturish, “I absolutely value safety in my community, and I have a tremendous amount of respect for the men and women in our police department. But I am struggling to balance this with some very real privacy concerns. ALPRs are a powerful technology that should only be used with transparency, input from the community, and clear policies in place on how the technology can be used. Using ALPRs in any community requires a whole set of unique regulations specific to their use. If these are not put in place before ALPRs have been installed (and after community buy-in), we are in danger of this technology being misused in ways that harm our community.”
For example, Sherrock pointed out, “On more than one occasion, ALPRs have been used to share data with ICE. In New York, this technology was used to determine who attended services at a local mosque. Can you think of other ways this technology could be misused? Women leaving a clinic? Documenting who attended a BLM protest?”
Here in Clayton County, we asked people what they thought. Amanda Phan, who has a relative with the Clayton County Police Department, said, “Doesn’t bother me. I’m not doing anything I shouldn’t be doing. So I’m okay with them tracking me if it means they can track criminals and catch them faster because they will know their routines. Sounds like a solid plan and a good way to run criminals and people that are up to no good off.”
Pat Lowe did not like the idea. “Will I have to explain myself if I go check on my friend’s cat a couple of times a day for a week while she is out of town? Maybe I’m going over every day to help her while she is ill. What triggers ‘frequent visitor’? Is it by street or neighborhood or address (business or home)?”
Melissa Udelhofen said, “Without a doubt, rogue cops and rogue officials will use it as blackmail. Not even using illegal activity, just morally questionable activity.”
A 2013 report by the American Civil Liberties Union, “You Are Being Tracked: How License Plate Readers Are Being Used To Record Americans’ Movements,” cited several examples of how this data has been abused, including a police officer tracked plates near a gay bar, then used that information to extort the people whose plates came up. It is not illegal to be gay, nor is it illegal to go to a gay bar.
Fast forward to March 22 of this year. A new report finds that Flock has built what the ACLU calls an extensive public-private mass surveillance system, marketing not only to police agencies but also to homeowners’ associations.
That means any private person with access to Flock’s system can pull up your travel history.
According to the report, “Flock not only allows private camera owners to create their own ‘hot lists’ that will generate alarms when listed plates are spotted, but also runs all plates against state police watch lists and the FBI’s primary criminal database, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC). When a camera scores a hit against one of those databases, law enforcement receives an immediate notification.”
That translates into billions of scans, only a tiny fraction of which generate hits.
The Clayton Crescent has filed an Open Records Request with CCPD, asking for documents about the policy and procedures for accessing and using Flock data, as well as penalties for its misuse or for superiors or elected officials who might try to pressure officers into misusing the data. We’ll report back on whether the county developed a Flock data policy before agreeing to buy the cameras.