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Flock Safety’s solar-powered cameras could make surveillance more widespread

Flock Safety's solar-powered cameras could make surveillance more widespread

Flock Safety’s solar-powered cameras could make surveillance more widespread

Flock Safety is a multibillion-dollar startup that’s got eyes everywhere. As of Wednesday, with the company’s new Solar Condor cameras, those eyes are solar-powered and use wireless 5G networks to make them all that much easier to install.

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

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

“The company has so far focused on selling automatic license plate recognition (ALPR) cameras,” writes the ACLU in a report back in 2022, finding ethical problems with tracking cars with networked tracking as they traveled around. The ACLU has recommended that communities reject Flock Safety’s products. Last year, it published a guide for 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 close to $5 billion, including from a16z’s American Dynamism fund, which has deployed money into law-and-order products, including police drones, corporate legal subpoena response, autonomous water defense drones and 911 call response systems.

It also claims to be effective at helping law enforcement track criminals: The firm says that 10% of reported crime in the U.S. is solved using its technology.

The problem is that Flock Safety doesn’t exactly have the best track record for accuracy. In New Mexico, police mistakenly treated some drivers as potentially violent criminal suspects and held them at gunpoint after the firm’s cameras misread license plates, according to KOAT Action News. The company was also reportedly sued when an Ohio man was allegedly wrongfully identified as a human trafficking suspect. The lawsuit was later dismissed. The company has drawn scrutiny in general about the privacy risks with nationally shared databases.

Give them a pole and they’ll give you a camera.
Image Credits: Flock Safety

A report from the Science, Technology, and Public Policy program at the University of Michigan concludes that “Even when ALPRs work as intended, the vast majority of images taken are not connected to any criminal activity,” and herein lies the problem: Filming everything all the time necessarily brings some privacy challenges with it.

‘Several tens of thousands’ of cameras

When you blanket the country in cameras, it stands to reason that the frequency of times that an individual car is spotted goes up. About a decade ago, the Supreme Court decided that tracking a car using a GPS tracker for more than 28 days violates the Fourth Amendment rule against unreasonable search and seizure.

It becomes a philosophical question at this point: How many data points of number plate recognition do you need before a networked array of cameras is able to track a vehicle with a similar resolution as GPS? I put that question to the chief strategy officer at Flock Safety, Bailey Quintrell.

“A GPS tracker has your location essentially, live — every second or so, depending on how it’s set up,” Quintrell said in an interview with TechCrunch, after confirming that there are “several tens of thousands” of the company’s cameras in operation. “With our cameras, they are installed in the public view, clearly visible there. Maybe that sounds numerous. But on a national scale, it’s actually not that many.”

That might be true on a national level, but density can be much higher in some communities. In Oakland, California, where I live, Governor Newsom recently announced a plan to cover the town with cameras.

“With the installation of this 480 high-tech camera network, we’re 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 claims that even high-density camera coverage is a huge issue.

“So it’s a very different level of information than like, say, a GPS tracker,” says Quintrell, refuting my suggestion that perhaps cameras are comparable to GPS if the density gets high enough. “I think the point [where we know where everyone is at all times] is pretty far away. There’s a lot of road miles, a lot of intersections, a lot of parking lots, a lot of driveways. I don’t know the numbers there, but it’s a lot more than the number of cameras that we sold.”

True, perhaps, but the company boasts of being “trusted by more than 5,000 communities across the country,” and ultimately, with its investors breathing down its neck, the company is showing little inclination to slow down its rollout.

Checking out the footage from one of the new Flock Solar Condor cameras.
Image Credits: Flock Safety

Data retention

One of the big challenges with camera technology is how long the cameras are storing footage and data. Flock suggests it stores data for a month by default.

“[Data] is stored on the device for 30 days, and then it is either viewed live, or you can download it from the device,” Quintrell confirms.

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

The ears and eyes of the police department

We live in a complex world where many police departments are struggling to hire the staff they need, and where a degree of video surveillance or AI-augmented policing might help make up the shortfall. I asked Flock’s strategy boss what he is most excited about.

“The most exciting thing? There are a lot of places where a lot of crime happens, and where there is no way to capture objective evidence (…) Law enforcement is finding it harder to hire people. So hiring is down, and retail crime has continued to grow explosively, which ends up costing all of us. It just ends up raising the price of everything,” says Quintrell.

“If you’re a police department, it’s so hard to hire people that are willing to wear a badge and do a really hard job. Just let us help you get the evidence from the places you need it, whether it’s the intersections or parks or your business customer: you’re just trying to keep your inventory from walking out the door without being paid for. [Solar Condor] turns a really complicated, expensive construction project into something simple. We just need a few hours of sunlight and a place to put a pole, and we can help you solve this problem.”

It’s hard to argue with the fact that it’s hard to hire cops these days, and I have no doubt that with solar power, the logistical issue of ubiquitous camera coverage just got a lot easier. But with great (solar) power comes great responsibility — and the question becomes whether a camera network run by a private, for-profit company has the right level of oversight and responsibility required to make up for the shortfall.

UPDATE: The story has been updated to reflect that one of the lawsuits was later dismissed.

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