EASTHAMPTON — The Easthampton Police Department has purchased two automatic license plate readers from a company that the American Civil Liberties Union has described as “building a form of mass surveillance unlike any seen before in American life.” One of these devices is currently installed along Route 141, documenting the license plates of cars traveling between Easthampton and Holyoke.
The city purchased the ALPR devices, as they’re known, from the company Flock Safety. The devices capture images and “footage” of license plates as well as vehicle characteristics — bumper stickers and decals, for example — to create text and data files referred to as “vehicle fingerprints.” Vehicle “footage” defined in Flock Safety’s service agreement, which The Shoestring obtained through a public records request, includes still images, video, audio and “other data.”
This captured data is fed into a nationwide database — “spanning 42 states and 1,500+ cities” — that uses AI and “machine learning,” allowing law enforcement and “any Flock Safety customer” to use the nationwide database and track vehicles in real time as well as past locations of vehicles, according to statements made on Flock Safety’s website. Many of these capabilities appear to extend to homeowners associations.
The American Civil Liberties Union has found that private camera owners with Flock Safety technology can generate a “hot-list” of license plates that triggers alarms to local law-enforcement when spotted by Flock Safety’s tech as well as simultaneously interfacing with police and FBI watch lists, including the National Crime Information Center.
EPD officials did not respond to an email sent Thursday requesting comment on this story.
The EPD purchased its two Flock Safety devices in April, according to an invoice The Shoestring obtained. The position of one ALPR device — referred to as Falcon Flex — was revealed in emails between Easthampton Police Chief Robert Alberti and Flock Safety “territory manager” Craig Lynch. But according to Flock Safety’s website, the devices are “location flexible” and allow for “temporary installation virtually anywhere.”
In an email, EPD Lt. Dennis Scribner told The Shoestring that the department’s second ALPR has been kept in storage at the Easthampton Public Safety complex and that the department has no records “regarding the intended use/installation and/or placement” of the second device.
Scribner also said the department does not have a written policy regarding the department’s use of the devices or data aside from the service agreement with Flock Safety.
Emails between Alberti and City Procurement Officer Micheal Owens seem to indicate that Alberti was able to execute the agreement with Flock Safety without outside oversight under State Chapter Laws 30B because the total amount of the initial purchase was less than $10,000. In one email, Owens told Alberti that Flock Safety’s service agreement includes “abundant language protecting Flock from any and all liability (typical).”
The devices will have an annual recurring combined cost of $5,000. Flock Safety’s service agreement says the company may increase the fee at any time with 60-day prior notice.
In the past, Flock Safety has faced backlash for partnering with police and installing the surveillance tech without input from the communities they cover. In Florida, for example, elected commissioners in Lake County ordered Flock to remove 98 cameras it had installed as part of a pilot program with the local sheriff’s office, despite having never consulted the legislators.
Emails from the company to the EPD, as well as Flock Safety’s website, boast that purchasers of the Flock cameras are not limited to cameras they have purchased but can “connect and collaborate with adjacent agencies and nearby privately-owned cameras in neighborhoods,” as well as “free access to private cameras and turn your cellphone into a LPR.”
Flock Safety also has a partnership with the body camera company AXON — a company from which the EPD has purchased body cameras within the last year — which also allows AXON to contribute to Flock Safety’s database.
The ACLU has raised repeated concerns over the company’s practices and future aims, saying Flock Safety embodies “some of the more worrisome trends in surveillance technology today.”
In testimony given to the Town Council of Portsmouth, Rhode Island, in July 2022, the ACLU also highlighted potential First-Amendment and privacy infringements, an alleged lack of transparency and “the absence of meaningful legal safeguards to hold Flock Safety and municipal law enforcement departments accountable.” The Town Council unanimously rejected the use of Flock Safety systems.
An in-depth paper written by Jay Stanley of the ACLU highlights the organization’s concerns with Flock Safety’s practices, arguing that the company has a “business model that effectively enlists its customers into a giant centralized government surveillance network” while looking to expand into traditional video surveillance and AI machine capabilities. Stanley highlights what he describes as the “all too real” risk of government abuse and this country’s long history of targeting individuals “not because they are suspected of criminal activity but because of their political or religious beliefs or race.”
When asked about these criticisms, Flock Safety spokesperson Josh Thomas said in an email that the company wants “to work with communities to build a safer future, both with good technology paired with good regulations.” He said that Flock Safety’s data-privacy priorities mirror three areas of regulation that the ACLU highlighted in a February article.
“We, Flock, wrote in 2019 how the three most important aspects of data privacy were: What type of data is collected? Who has access to the data and what can they do with it? How long is the data stored?” Thomas said. “We have always agreed that these are the fundamental issues in regulating this technology. And we’ve been dedicated to mitigating the risk of these concerns since our company was founded.”
Thomas went on to say that “cities across the country have a crime problem” and that the leaders of those cities “are looking to capture the objective evidence needed to help make our communities safer.”
“We believe it’s possible to both increase public safety and mitigate the risks associated with privacy concerns, because it’s happening every day,” he said.
A survey of crime data collected from 30 U.S. cities conducted by the Council on Criminal Justice “suggests that levels of nearly all offenses are lower, or have changed little, in the first six months of 2023 compared with the same period in 2022.” The data is limited to the cities in which the council could obtain the data, and for some categories only a few cities released statistics.
The New York Times reported on the survey, saying “the latest data at least offers a hopeful sign that the increases in violent crime during the pandemic were not the start of a new era of steadily rising crime, as many experts have worried.”
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Easthampton appears not to be the first in Massachusetts to use Flock Safety surveillance systems. In emails between the EPD and Flock Safety, the company said that “a number of departments in Mass are leveraging Flock Safety LPR technology” and the use of “more than 150” Flock Safety surveillance devices state-wide.
Together, Flock and Alberti named Holyoke, West Springfield and Northampton as current users of the technology in addition to Quincy, Lawrence and Revere.
One of the earliest emails from Flock Safety representative Craig Lynch to Alberti pitching the products in March 2021 name drops other top police officials.
“Captain Gearing out of [West Springfield] PD, Lt Ciccarelli out of Lawrence, Chief Cardoza out of Fall River and I wanted to see if you would be interested in learning more,” Lynch wrote.
The Boston Globe reported in December 2020 that Massachusetts public safety officials halted the use of a different license plate surveillance system on roadways across the state after reviewing the system’s data and discovering widespread inaccuracies.
“The data, including location, date, and time, is compiled in a massive database and used for criminal investigations and even finding suspects in real time — all without obtaining warrants or court orders,” reporter Matt Rocheleau wrote in the article.
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security and the Department of Criminal Justice Information Services “for failing to produce public records regarding the state’s use of automatic license plate reader (ALPR) technology.”
The ACLU maintains that ALPR technology “implicates several civil liberties issues” and the technology potentially poses a greater privacy risk to people since the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the landmark abortion-rights case Roe v. Wade.
“Police and private individuals in some states may seek location data showing people traveling to Massachusetts for reproductive care in order to use that evidence for civil and criminal penalties,” the organization has said.
ALPR data has already been used elsewhere to track attendance at political events, visits to places of worship by whom and when, and to track immigrants across the country, according to news reports. Recently, a sheriff in Sacramento, California, has seemingly provided ALPR data to agencies in states “that have passed laws banning abortion, including Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas,” according to The Sacramento Bee.
Shelby Lee is a short story writer and investigative reporter. They can be reached at email@example.com
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