The implementation of a vast surveillance network across Oklahoma and the United States is a threat to privacy and civil liberties. Georgia-based tech company Flock Safety promises the latest innovations in automatic license plate reader (ALRP) technology to homeowners, schools, businesses and law enforcement agencies. Flock can be used to find stolen vehicles or assist in AMBER alert responses. CEO Garrett Langley refutes privacy concerns and instead flaunts success stories. Yet looking at camera placement, retention period of data, and its dangerous potential, Flock needs to be regulated strictly if not banned.  

The problems start before the cameras are even turned on. Flock maintains the system is objective because it captures pictures of cars and does not do facial recognition. Yet, users of the cameras are biased. Black and Brown communities in the United States are already over policed, and this technology exacerbates systemic racism in the criminal legal system. Take Tulsa’s police force, which recently bought a flock of cameras after a one-year trial. Comparing the map of camera placement with a map of the racial makeup of the city shows cameras are placed exclusively in majority Black and Hispanic neighborhoods with none in the wealthy and white midtown neighborhoods. This creates a cycle in which more surveillance in Black and Brown neighborhoods leads to more reports of crime and therefore continuous justification of camera usage. If the distribution of cameras is discriminatory, how can cities expect the results to be just?  

After the cameras are motion triggered, captured footage is kept for 30 days. The plates are then run against the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) Database and locally created hotlists. Users are then notified of hits. The NCIC database against which cars are automatically run is problematic because it is exempted from the 1974 Privacy Act, meaning accuracy and timeliness of the data is not required. Additionally, the retention period is dangerous because it can reveal sensitive information like places of worship, medical visits, relationships, and political activities. Furthermore, the 30-day period is a Flock promise and is not legally guaranteed: it could be extended on a whim. And despite saying data is not shared with other parties without consent, the fine print (section on releasing ALPR data) explains Flock may “access, use, preserve and/or disclose the footage to law enforcement authorities, government officials, and/or third parties, if legally required to do so or if Flock has a good faith belief that” it is necessary to protect the rights of another party or if it is an emergency. In these cases, the company simply notifies the user. This extremely vague statement allows Flock unlimited control over sensitive data, which it could sell. This problem can be solved by states implementing data sharing laws and shorter retention periods like in New Hampshire, which mandates footage of non-hit plates be deleted after three minutes.  

Oklahoma police departments assure the cameras are used for good, but the advanced capabilities are just waiting to be abused. As the cameras are employed across the United States, a surveillance network is formed. The ability to track cars across state lines is a huge threat to freedom given the diversity of policy between states. For example, governments could track people traveling for abortions or gender affirming care. And while users cannot filter through footage to find bumper stickers expressing certain ideologies, the stickers are identifiable. Furthermore, while facial recognition is not a Flock feature, police could run Flock footage through their own identification software. ALPR technology has success stories, but, without proper regulation, it poses an immense threat to civil liberties. Governments must implement policies that mandate fair camera placement and limit data retention periods. They must ensure cameras are used to enhance public safety rather than threaten it.