Flock Safety's Solar-powered Cameras Could Further Expand Surveillance | TechCrunch - Latest Global News

Flock Safety’s Solar-powered Cameras Could Further Expand Surveillance | TechCrunch

Flock Safety is a multi-billion dollar startup that is getting attention everywhere. As of Wednesday, those eyes on the company’s new Solar Condor cameras are solar-powered and use 5G wireless networks, making installation much easier.

With the addition of solar power, the company’s mission to cover the country with cameras has become much easier. The company says its Condor camera system is based on “advanced AI and ML that constantly learns with cutting-edge video analytics” to adapt to changing needs, and that “Condor cameras can be placed anywhere thanks to solar deployment.”

However, the company faced resistance and criticism from some privacy advocates, including the ACLU.

“The company has so far focused on selling cameras with automatic license plate recognition (ALPR),” the ACLU wrote in a 2022 report, seeing ethical issues in tracking cars with connected tracking as they drive. ACLU has recommended that communities reject Flock Safety’s products. Last year it published a guide on how to use the company’s products to slow down mass surveillance.

Flock Safety is an exceptionally 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 invests money in many law-and-order products has, including police drones. Responding to corporate subpoenas, autonomous water defense drones, and emergency alert systems.

It also claims that it is effective in helping law enforcement track down criminals: the company claims that 10% of reported crimes in the US are solved using its technology.

The problem is that Flock Safety doesn’t exactly have the best track record when it comes to accuracy. According to KOAT Action News, police in New Mexico mistakenly treated some drivers as potentially violent criminals and held them at gunpoint after the company’s cameras incorrectly captured license plates. The company was also reportedly sued when an Ohio man was allegedly misidentified as a human trafficking suspect. And the company has generally scrutinized the privacy risks of nationally shared databases.

Give them a pole and they’ll give you a camera. Photo credit: Flock Safety

A report from the Science, Technology and Public Policy program at UMich concludes that “even when ALPRs work as intended, the vast majority of images captured are not related to criminal activity,” and therein lies the problem: Inevitably, everything has to be filmed all the time, which brings with it some data protection challenges.

“Several tens of thousands” of cameras

When you flood the country with cameras, it’s obvious that the frequency with which a single car is spotted will increase. About a decade ago, the Supreme Court ruled that tracking a car for more than 28 days with a GPS tracker violated the Fourth Amendment rule against unreasonable searches and seizures.

This is where it becomes a philosophical question: How many license plate recognition data points are required for a networked array of cameras to track a vehicle with a resolution similar to GPS? I asked Flock Safety Chief Strategy Officer Bailey Quintrell this question.

“A GPS tracker essentially shows your location live – about every second, depending on how it’s set up,” Quintrell said in an interview with TechCrunch after confirming that “tens of thousands” of the company’s cameras are in use Operation. “With our cameras, they are installed in the public field of vision and are clearly visible there. Maybe that sounds numerous. But at the national level there aren’t actually that many.”

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

“By installing 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 of this year.

Still, Quintrell claims that even high-density camera coverage is a big problem.

“So it’s a completely different level of information than, for example, a GPS tracker,” says Quintress, refuting my suspicion that cameras might be comparable to GPS if the density is high enough. “I think the point [where we know where everyone is at all times] is quite far away. There are many kilometers of roads, many intersections, many parking spaces, many driveways. I don’t know the numbers, but it’s a lot more than the number of cameras we sold.”

Perhaps true, but the company boasts that it is “trusted by more than 5,000 communities across the country,” and with investors breathing down its neck, the company ultimately shows little inclination to slow its rollout.

Check out footage from one of the new Flock Solar Condor cameras. Image source: Flock Safety

Data retention

One of the major challenges in camera technology is how long cameras retain footage and data. Flock suggests storing data for a month by default.

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

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

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 where some level of video surveillance or AI-powered policing could help make up for the shortage. I asked Flock’s head of strategy what he’s most excited about.

“The most exciting thing? There are many places where there is a lot of crime and where there is no way to collect objective evidence (…) Law enforcement agencies are finding it more and more difficult to hire people. So hiring has fallen and retail crime has continued to explode, ultimately costing us all. It ends up driving up the price of everything,” says Quintrell.

“When you’re a police department, it’s so hard to hire people who are willing to wear a badge and do a really tough job. We simply help you get the evidence where you need it, be it at intersections, in parks or at your business customer’s: you’re just trying to prevent your inventory from leaving the house unpaid. [Solar Condor] turns a really complicated and expensive construction project into something simple. All we need is a few hours of sunlight and a place to put a pole and we can help you solve this problem.”

It’s hard to deny that it’s difficult to hire police officers these days, and I have no doubt that solar power has made the logistical problem of ubiquitous camera surveillance much easier. But with great (solar) power comes great responsibility – and the question arises as to whether a camera network operated by a private, for-profit company has the right level of oversight and responsibility to make up the shortfall.

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