License plate cameras help solve crimes, but there are privacy concerns


Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department says sufficient warranties will ensure that a newly purchased camera system that uses artificial intelligence to read and record license plate numbers and other characteristics of vehicles entering the county will only be used for law enforcement purposes.

The camera system, manufactured by Atlanta-based Flock Safety, captures still images of every vehicle that comes along and uploads them to a “cloud” server. The machine learning algorithms analyze the images, record a range of vehicle information and send alerts to MPs of all vehicles that have been reported for suspected involvement in a crime, company officials said.

The information collected includes the number and condition of the license plate, color, make and model, “unique details” such as roof racks and bumper stickers, and the date and time. the time of the image and the number of times the vehicle has passed through the cameras in the past month. The cameras will not capture images of vehicle occupants, and all data and photos are permanently deleted after 30 days.

Bartholomew County Commissioners approved the testing of four Flock security cameras for one year and agreed to pay $ 5,000 out of the total price of $ 11,000 to deploy the system in Bartholomew County. The sheriff’s department will pay the rest of the bill.

The cameras, which are unable to measure vehicle speed, will be installed at four locations across the county, including US 31 near Interstate 65 on the north side, State Road 7 on the east side, US 31 on the south side and State Road. 46 on the west side, said Captain Chris Roberts, commander of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department Detective’s Office. Roberts oversaw the acquisition of the cameras.

Locally, the cameras will be set to automatically alert MPs of any passing vehicle that is suspected of being linked to an orange or silver alert for missing persons, has been reported stolen, suspected of being used to commit a crime or the registered driver has a felony warrant, Roberts said.

Cameras will only notify MPs of vehicles reported by law enforcement as they enter Bartholomew County. They do not track where people are going once they are within county limits or when vehicles leave the county.

The Sheriff’s Department hopes to install the cameras within the next two months, although no specific date has been set, Roberts said.

Once installed, the cameras will be tested for 60 days. At the end of this period, Bartholomew County Council will be asked to include the cameras in next year’s budget. If approved, the cameras will be tested for an additional year.

During the year, the Sheriff’s Department plans to track how well it assists MPs with investigations, with routine audits being performed on who within the department is using the system, what searches have been done, and the reasons for. which they need to ensure the photos are only used for law enforcement purposes, Roberts said.

“I’m looking to see how they work for us in the county and what they provide to us,” Roberts said. “So I don’t know if in 60 days we will be able to say 100% that, ‘Yes, they are suitable or not’. But I think over the course of the year we should have enough data to come back and have a really good idea about it. “

How the system works

The system uses a set of cameras programmed to take multiple still images of each passing vehicle, according to the Flock Safety website. The company says the cameras can capture clear images of vehicles traveling at up to 100 miles per hour – during the day and at night – at a distance of up to 75 feet.

Images are automatically uploaded to an encrypted “cloud” server operated by Amazon Web Services within seconds of taking the photos. Once in the “cloud”, the images are analyzed by machine learning algorithms that read and store license plates and categorize other vehicle characteristics.

The images and other data collected are then automatically uploaded to Flock Safety’s online portal, where sheriff’s deputies can log in to conduct research and create their own vehicle “hotlist” that will trigger an alert sent to the forces. order if the wanted vehicle passes by. one of the cameras. Users are also asked to provide a reason for the search before submitting a search.

A recent demonstration of the Flock Safety user interface by IPVM, a news organization in the video surveillance industry that frequently performs product testing, showed that users can perform a wide range of searches, including by license plate number. full or partial registration, make, model and color, among other criteria.

Locally, the system will rely on vehicle information entered by police into the Indiana Data and Communications System, or IDACS, which is the statewide system used by agencies to law enforcement that integrates information from national crime databases. Law enforcement agencies are already using this database to run the plates manually.

If the system detects a reported vehicle, it will send a notification to the deputies which they can access through the computer of each patrol car.

However, at least initially, only MPs from the Sheriff’s Department’s Investigations Division will be able to perform a vehicle search through the system, Roberts said.

“The only thing they capture is the license plate and a picture of the back of the vehicle and stuff like that. We’re not going to use them for traffic control or anything like that. .… These cameras are lead information. They just let us know that we have a potential vehicle, ”he said.

Confidentiality concerns

The camera system that the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department plans to install is part of a growing industry of AI-powered network technology, including automatic license plate readers, capable of tracking vehicles as they move across the country, advocacy groups say.

Flock Safety, for example, claims that its cameras capture more than a billion images of vehicles each month in over 1,000 cities in 40 states and specifically announces them to law enforcement, urging them to “cover your city.” with cameras that see like a detective, ”according to the company’s website.

Privacy groups including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation call the technology a form of mass surveillance and have expressed concern that cameras are tracking vehicles – which whether or not they have been reported by the police – and the technology has been abused.

The system can also connect cameras in multiple cities, which means, for example, that the Indianapolis Police, which also have Flock security cameras, could perform a vehicle search that extracts results including images captured with cameras installed in Bartholomew County, and vice versa.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the growing use of automated license plate readers across the country, it’s that these things aren’t incredibly focused,” said Matthew Guariglia, analyst for license plates. policies at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “… For the most part, these cameras are on and they record every license plate that passes, so that includes the innocent as well as the guilty. And, of course, 99.9% of those people are innocent.

“What automated license plate readers are all about is tracking their movements throughout their day,” Guariglia added.

However, the companies that make the systems, including Flock Safety, have said they take privacy “very seriously” and that privacy “is at the heart of our design and factored into every product decision.”

In addition, Flock Safety claims that its customers own all the images they capture through its system and that no vehicle data is sold to third parties.

“Our business is solving crime, not monitoring or tracking driving habits,” the company says on its website. “Our clients know that the images should be used for an active investigation aimed at solving a crime. “

And law enforcement agencies across the country say the technology has been helpful in generating investigative leads and solving crimes that might not have been solved otherwise, highlighting what they describe as success stories. Some have claimed that the cameras deter crime.

For example, Wichita Police have attributed the recovery of 68 stolen cars, 39 stolen license plates, 39 felony arrests, as well as the seizure of 13 firearms, methamphetamine and other drugs in just over a month. , to automatic license plate readers, The Wichita Eagle reported.

Roberts said MPs must have a “law enforcement reason” to use the system and that routine audits will be carried out to ensure the system is being used as intended.

“You just can’t search without having a reason,” Roberts said. “Flock’s and our policy require that in order to perform specific research on a vehicle you must be in some sort of investigation. This is recorded and of course there will be an audit to make sure everything is compliant.

Other concerns related to the accuracy of these systems. In a recent product test, IPVM found that Flock Safety’s cameras were very accurate at reading license plate numbers, but sometimes misclassified the license plate condition, the vehicle type and make, including a case where a yellow Nissan Xterra has been identified as a bus.

But Bartholomew County Sheriff’s deputies will not take system alerts at face value and investigate before taking action, Roberts said.

“Agents should always take that information and get in touch with that person and verify this personally,” Roberts said. “… Basically it’s a little faster than someone calling us at 911 saying, ‘I’m behind a stolen vehicle’ or ‘I think I just saw the vehicle in the Amber alert and it go down State Road 46. ”And that’s the same thing this (camera system) is going to do. He’ll just tell us, ‘Here’s a vehicle, this is what we believe.’ “

Where to find out more

To learn more about Flock Safety, visit

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