Police are increasingly able to track motor vehicles throughout the U.S. using a network of AI-powered cameras — many owned by civilians.
What’s new: Flock, which sells automatic license plate readers to homeowners associations, businesses, and law enforcement agencies, is encouraging enforcers to use its network to monitor cars and trucks outside their jurisdiction, according to an investigation by Vice.
How it works: Flock owners can opt to share data with police. In turn, police can share data with Flock’s Total Analytics Law Officers Network, or Talon.
- Talon collects as many as 500 million vehicle scans each month. The network’s cameras store video and send alerts when they spot vehicles flagged on watch lists. In addition to license plate numbers, users can search by model, color, and features like spoilers or roof racks.
- Talon data can also be used in conjunction with the National Crime Information Center, an FBI database that contains records on fugitives, missing persons, and stolen vehicles.
- Over 500 U.S. police departments have access to Talon. Flock claims that it helps solve between four and five cases an hour. The system stores data for only 30 days, but police can download information for use as evidence in a case.
- Roving scanners are mounted on tow trucks and garbage trucks, The Wall Street Journal reported. License plate data played a role in arrests of suspects in the riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6.
Behind the news: AI-powered cameras are increasingly popular with law enforcement, but their use is fueling concerns about overreach.
- Police used data from Ring, a division of Amazon that sells AI-enhanced surveillance cameras to residences and businesses (but which lack license plate reader technology), to target Black Lives Matter protesters in Los Angeles last summer.
- License plate readers by Vigilant have contributed to arrests for driving vehicles incorrectly identified as stolen.
- In South Africa, critics say that Vumacam’s camera systems, which recognize objects, behaviors, and license plate numbers, reinforce law enforcement biases against Blacks.
Why it matters: Commercial surveillance networks have been deployed without much oversight or consent, and police are rarely accountable for how they use such systems. Permissive policies around these devices amount to warrantless monitoring of millions of innocent people by police as well as fellow citizens.
We’re thinking: While AI can help police catch criminals, we do not condone a silent erosion of civil liberties and privacy. We support clear, consistent guidelines on appropriate uses of face recognition, license plate readers, and other tracking technologies.