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Ridgecrest Police Department’s acting Police Chief, Aaron Tucker, discusses how ALPRS works and how it would benefit the department. / Laura Austin Photos

Council votes to install 24 surveillance cameras

By Helen Tomlin News Review Staff Writer–
  Following two “Flock Safety” town hall meetings conducted by the Ridgecrest Police Department, the City Council met on February 21 and voted unanimously to install 24 automated license plate readers (ALPRs) to be strategically placed throughout the City. These cameras snap pictures of passing cars and upload the plate numbers, the time and date, and the GPS coordinates to a searchable database.  This technology allows the police to identify and track vehicles in real time and search their travel patterns.

Now, the City will sign an agreement with Flock to install and maintain the controversial surveillance cameras. This initial two-year contract will cost the City $150,100.

Mike Neel

During the first town hall meeting, Sergeant Bill Groves told the audience the RPD would like two cameras initially, but “20 would be ideal.”  However, resident Mike Neel saw the whole camera idea as another way to surveil the citizens and called it a “liberty nightmare.”  He predicted the police department would say, “We need to expand this!  We need to expand this!  And then five years down the line, cameras will be everywhere.” Neel’s prediction was off by three years, but during last week’s council meeting, acting Police Chief Aaron Tucker just proved his prophecy to be true.   

Just one month after Groves said RPD wants 20 cameras, Tucker admitted even 24 may not be enough.  He said, “Depending on the final determination of locations, the number of ALPRs may either increase or decrease.”   

Tucker told the council members the Flock cameras first came on the radar when the RPD Investigations Bureau sought a crime prevention and reaction program that would give them real-time data to help solve crimes. Tucker said the ALPRs “objectively capture vehicle license plates and associated vehicle characteristics.”  They send immediate alerts to law enforcement when a stolen vehicle or a vehicle associated with a wanted suspect on a “hot list” has been detected within a City.  But what was not mentioned is Flock also sells cameras to residents and HOAs for home security and ones to be placed on squad vehicles.  The cameras can all be linked to create what Jay Stanley describes as “a powerful dragnet surveillance tool.”    

In his white paper entitled “Fast-Growing Company Flock is Building a New AI-Driven Mass-Surveillance System,” Stanley writes, “[Flock] has focused on selling [ALPR] cameras to [HOAs] and other private parties, as well as police departments. But [Flock’s] business model effectively enlists its customers into a giant centralized government surveillance network…”

When Tucker says Flock gathers not only license plate numbers but also “associated vehicle characteristics,” he means identifying marks such as dents, company logos, or other unique characteristics on each car.  These identifiers may help the police pinpoint a stolen vehicle, but they may also spotlight people holding certain beliefs and make them ripe for political observation.  Stanley writes, “Presumably, that would allow searches for all vehicles that include a particular political bumper sticker, enabling [them] to be targeted based on the exercise of their First Amendment-protected free expression rights.”

Tucker said this system has been used by many law enforcement agencies around the country to deter crime and assist investigations while providing “apprehensions of the most dangerous criminals and the recovery of abducted children” via Amber Alerts. Although the cameras are motion detectors, he said facial recognition is not part of this technology…”

However, in the article “New Data Set Shows Scale of Vehicle Surveillance in the Golden State,” Dave Maass writes, “There is a certain irony when law enforcement claims that ALPR data is not personally identifying information when one of the primary purposes of the data is to assist identifying suspects.”  He writes that California’s data breach laws “explicitly name ALPR as a form of personal information when it is combined with a person’s name.”  He believes law enforcement can easily connect the ALPR data to other data sets, such as “a vehicle registration database to determine the identity of the owner of the vehicle.”  He also notes that ALPR systems store photographs, which can “potentially capture images of drivers’ faces.”

Tucker said the information collected in Ridgecrest stays in the system for 30 days on a private server and California law prohibits RPD from sharing it with federal agencies. However, the information gathered from Ridgecrest’s streets can be shared with all the other law enforcement agencies throughout the state, which is a lot.  During his town hall PowerPoint presentation, Grove’s California map showing cities already using Flock lit up like a Christmas tree.  He said, “Pretty much everywhere you go, you’re going to be found on somebody’s Flock Safety.”

When Councilman Scott Hayman asked if he “openly shared with other agencies,” Groves said, “We would hope we have reciprocity between state agencies [so we can] access theirs as well as they access ours.”

That may seem good from a police officer’s point of view if he believes the best in all the neighboring agencies, but ACLU’s Chad Barlow is not so trusting.  He writes, “Flock is the first to create a nationwide mass surveillance system out of its customers’ cameras.”

Marlow, who is the ACLU’s Senior Policy Council, wrote an article in February 2023 entitled, “Your Police Department’s Use of Flock’s Mass Surveillance License Plate Readers.”   He believes significant risks are created if a city’s data is allowed to be used by outside law enforcement.  He used the example of shared data being used to enforce anti-abortion or anti-immigrant laws present in other jurisdictions.  He also envisioned the possibility of foreign authoritarian regimes “hunting down political opponents and refugees living in America.”

He said, “Flock Safety is blanketing American cities with dangerously powerful and unregulated ALPR cameras.”  He writes that Flock works with police departments, neighborhood watches, and other private customers “to create their own ‘hot lists’ that generate alarms when listed plates are spotted.”  He believes Flock’s goal is to “expand to every city in the U.S.” and their cameras “are already in use in over 3000 cities in at least 42 states.”

Ronald Porter

At Wednesday night’s council meeting, Ron Porter asked how much is already known about us through our computers, phones, and even our utility companies?  He used the examples of the water company knowing when we flush our toilets, wash our clothes, and take our showers. He said, “The electric company even knows when we turn off our TVs.”  He said, “it’s all about algorithms.”

Even though City Attorney, Martin Koczanowicz, assured the council the City’s use of Flock Safety is constitutional, Porter disagreed. He said, “Sir, I’m going to have to disagree with you because this has to do with electronic enhancement which has yet to be decided by the Supreme Court.”

Porter gave an example. “If you’re walking down the street and an officer is standing on the corner and sees something, that’s perfectly legitimate.”  He said that even if the officer sees it through an open window, “that would be ok.”  But what is not constitutional is the officer’s use of binoculars or a camera with a special lens. “That’s considered intrusion.”

A D.C. Circuit Court ruling (U.S. v. Antione Jones) determined that location data can reveal extremely sensitive information about who we are and what we do.  The judge writes, “A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups – and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

Maass updates this court’s finding. He writes, “The Supreme Court agreed with a lower court ruling that “ALPR data showing where a person was at a certain time could potentially reveal where that person lives, works, or frequently visits.”

Porter said using these cameras “isn’t about today – it’s about tomorrow and the day after.  How far are they gonna go?”  Porter agrees everyone wants to feel safe, but he is unwilling to say, “You can search my house to make me safe.”

But apparently Councilman Solomon Rajaratnam has a different priority.  In his comments, he said the issue boils down to “privacy versus fighting crime.”  He concluded that his constituents’ privacy is important, but their safety is more important.

In the final analysis, these surveillance cameras will provide law enforcement with a tool to identify and locate stolen vehicles, suspects in crimes, or possibly abducted children. But, whether the city just voted to be another Lego piece in the growing country-wide mass surveillance system is up for debate. The city council unanimously voted to “give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety.”