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Flock Safety’s solar cameras could generalize surveillance

Flock Safety is a multi-billion dollar startup with eyes everywhere. As of Wednesday, with the company’s new Solar Condor cameras, these eyes are powered by solar energy and use 5G wireless networks to make them even easier to install.

Adding solar power to the mix means the company’s mission of blanketing the country with cameras just got a whole lot easier. The company says its Condor camera system is powered by “advanced AI and ML that constantly learns through cutting-edge video analytics” to adapt to changing needs, and that “through solar deployment, Condor cameras can be placed anywhere’.

However, the company has drawn resistance and scrutiny from some privacy advocates, including the ACLU.

“Until now, the company has focused on selling automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) cameras,” the ACLU writes in a 2022 report, finding ethical problems in car tracking with network monitoring during their travels. The ACLU recommended that communities reject Flock Safety’s products. Last year, it released a guide on how to slow down mass surveillance with the company’s products.

Flock Safety is an extraordinarily well-funded startup. PitchBook reports that the company has raised more than $680 million to date, at a valuation of nearly $5 billion, including from a16z’s American Dynamism fund, which has deployed money into numerous product offerings. public order, including police drones, responding to corporate subpoenas, autonomous water defense drones and 911 call response systems.

It also claims to be effective in helping law enforcement track down criminals: the company claims that 10% of reported crimes in the United States are solved using its technology.

The problem is that Flock Safety doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to accuracy. In New Mexico, police mistakenly treated some drivers as potentially violent criminal suspects and held them at gunpoint after company cameras misread license plates, according to KOAT Action News. The company was also reportedly sued when an Ohio man was wrongly identified as a human trafficking suspect. And the company has drawn widespread attention to the privacy risks of nationally shared databases.

Give them a pole and they’ll give you a camera. Image credit: Herd Safety

A report from UMich’s Science, Technology and Public Policy program concludes that “Even when ALPRs work as intended, the vast majority of images taken are not linked to any criminal activity,” and therein lies the problem: film all the time necessarily. this leads to some privacy issues.

“Several tens of thousands” of cameras

When you cover the country with cameras, it stands to reason that the frequency with which an individual car is spotted increases. About a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled that tracking a car using a GPS tracker for more than 28 days violated the Fourth Amendment rule against unreasonable searches and seizures.

At this point, it becomes a philosophical question: how many license plate recognition data points do you need before a network of networked cameras is capable of tracking a vehicle with similar resolution to GPS ? I asked this question to Director of Strategy at Flock Safety, Bailey Quintrell.

“A GPS tracker basically knows your location, live – every second or so, depending on how it’s configured,” Quintrell said in an interview with TechCrunch, after confirming there were “several tens of thousands” of company cameras. operation. “With our cameras, they are installed in view of the public, clearly visible there. That may seem like a lot. But on a national scale, it’s actually not that much.”

This may be true nationally, but density may be much higher in some communities. In Oakland, California, where I live, Governor Newsom recently announced a plan to blanket the city with cameras.

“With the installation of this network of 480 high-tech cameras, we are equipping law enforcement with the tools they need to effectively combat criminal activity and hold perpetrators accountable,” Newsom said in a statement. in March this year.

Still, Quintrell says even high-density camera coverage is a major problem.

“So it’s a very different level of information than, say, a GPS tracker,” says Quintress, refuting my suggestion that cameras might be comparable to GPS if the density becomes high enough high. “I think the time (when we know where everyone is at all times) is quite far away. There are a lot of kilometers of road, a lot of intersections, a lot of parking lots, a lot of entrances. I don’t know the numbers, but it’s way more than the number of cameras we sold.

That may be true, but the company boasts that it is “trusted by more than 5,000 communities across the country” and, ultimately, with its investors at their wit’s end, the company is falling short. shows little inclination to slow down its deployment.

I’m watching footage from one of the new Flock Solar Condor cameras. Image credit: Herd Safety

Data retention

One of the big challenges in camera technology is the length of time cameras store images and data. Flock suggests that it stores data for one month by default.

“(The data) is stored on the device for 30 days, and then it’s either viewed live or you can download it from the device,” Quintrell confirms.

This data retention policy is one of the things the ACLU particularly has a problem with, arguing that a 72-hour policy should be enough for video footage, but the organization is pushing for the data to be “deleted and destroyed by Flock for no more than three minutes. after the first capture of photos or data.

The ears and eyes of the police

We live in a complex world where many police departments are struggling to recruit the staff they need and some degree of video surveillance or AI-enhanced policing could help bridge this gap. I asked Flock’s head of strategy what excites him most about himself.

“The most exciting thing? There are many places where many crimes occur and there is no way to collect objective evidence (…) Law enforcement finds it more difficult to hire staff. As a result, hiring is down and retail crime has continued to grow explosively, ultimately costing us all. That ends up driving up the price of everything,” says Quintrell.

“If you’re a police department, it’s very difficult to hire people who are willing to wear a badge and do a very hard job. Just let us help you get the evidence where you need it, whether it’s intersections, parks, or your business customer – you’re just trying to keep your inventory from walking out the door without getting paid. (Solar Condor) turns a very complicated and expensive construction project into something simple. We just need a few hours of sunlight and a place to install a pole, and we can help you solve this problem. »

It’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s hard to hire police officers these days, and I’m convinced that with solar power, the logistical problem of ubiquitous camera coverage has become much easier. But with big (solar) power comes big responsibility – and the question is whether a network of cameras run by a private, for-profit company has the level of oversight and accountability required to make up that shortfall.

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