At a city council meeting in June 2021, Mayor Thomas Kilgore, of Lakeway, Texas, made an announcement that confused his community.
“I believe it is my duty to inform you that a surveillance system has been installed in the city of Lakeway,” he told the perplexed crowd.
Kilgore was referring to a system consisting of eight license plate readers, installed by the private company Flock Safety, that was tracking cars on both private and public roads. Despite being in place for six months, no one had told residents that they were being watched. Kilgore himself had just recently learned of the cameras.
“We find ourselves with a surveillance system,” he said, “with no information and no policies, procedures, or protections.”
The deal to install the cameras had not been approved by the city government’s executive branch.
Instead, the Rough Hollow Homeowners Association, a nongovernment entity, and the Lakeway police chief had signed off on the deal in January 2021, giving police access to residents’ footage. By the time of the June city council meeting, the surveillance system had notified the police department over a dozen times.
“We thought we were just being a partner with the city,” Bill Hayes, the chief operating officer of Legend Communities, which oversees the Rough Hollow Homeowners Association, said at the meeting. “We didn’t go out there thinking we were being Big Brother.”
Lakeway is just one example of a community that has faced Flock’s surveillance without many homeowners’ knowledge or approval. Neighbors in Atlanta, Georgia, remained in the dark for a year after cameras were put up. In Lake County, Florida, nearly 100 cameras went up “overnight like mushrooms,” according to one county commissioner — without a single permit.
In a statement, Flock Safety brushed off the Lake County incident as an “an honest misunderstanding,” but the increasing surveillance of community members’ movements across the country is no accident. It’s a deliberate marketing strategy.
Flock Safety, which began as a startup in 2017 in Atlanta and is now valued at approximately $3.5 billion, has targeted homeowners associations, or HOAs, in partnership with police departments, to become one of the largest surveillance vendors in the nation. There are key strategic reasons that make homeowners associations the ideal customer. HOAs have large budgets — they collect over $100 billion a year from homeowners — and it’s an opportunity for law enforcement to gain access into gated, private areas, normally out of their reach.
“What are the consequences if somebody abuses the system?”
Over 200 HOAs nationwide have bought and installed Flock’s license plate readers, according to an Intercept investigation, the most comprehensive count to date. HOAs are private entities and therefore are not subject to public records requests or regulation.
“What are the consequences if somebody abuses the system?” said Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “There are repercussions of having this data, and you don’t have that kind of accountability when it comes to a homeowners association.”
The readers can be hooked up to Flock’s search network, which allows police to track cars within their own neighborhoods, as well as access a nationwide system of license plate readers that scan approximately a billion images of vehicles a month. Law enforcement agencies with cameras can also create their own “hot lists” of plate numbers that generate alarms when scanned and will run them in state police watchlists and the FBI’s primary criminal database, the National Crime Information Center.
The ACLU has reported that private camera operators can create a “hot lists” and HOAs have boasted of the capability. Flock, however, said private owners can don’t have direct access to these functions and can only refer data to police departments that do.
“Flock Safety installs cameras with permission from our customers, at the locations they require,” said Holly Beilin, a Flock representative. “Our team has stood in front of hundreds of city council meetings, and we have always supported the democratic process.”
After facing public outrage, the cameras were removed from communities in Texas and Florida, but Flock’s license plate readers continue to rapidly proliferate daily — from cities in Missouri to Kentucky.
“It’s a near constant drumbeat,” said Edwin Yohnka, the director of public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois.
With over half of all Americans living in HOAs, experts believe the surveillance technology is far more ubiquitous than we know.
“Typically, when we work with agencies, we start with neighborhood HOAs,” Meg Heusel, Flock’s director of marketing, wrote in an internal email to Lakeway Police Sgt. Jason Brown back in February 2021. In practice, however, Flock often works to court the police first and then tag-team to persuade local HOAs to buy the cameras.
To entice the police, Flock claims it makes neighborhoods 70 percent safer and “quickly arms police” with evidence. And law enforcement officials are easily persuaded by Flock Safety’s promise to reduce crime, which the company stresses is trending dangerously upward. Last April, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy pledged to spend $10 million to expand the use of automated license plate readers, which would capture and store images in a “centralized database accessible to law enforcement,” to combat an “epidemic in car theft.”
The range of data Flock’s surveillance systems can collect is vast. The company’s “vehicle fingerprint” technology goes beyond traditional models, capturing not only license plate numbers, but also the state, vehicle type, make, color, missing and covered plates, bumper stickers, decals, and roof racks. The data is stored on Amazon Web Services servers and is deleted after 30 days, the company says.
Such detail has helped police catch crime. Dallas police, for instance, said the cameras were a “game changer” and that they have recovered over 200 allegedly stolen vehicles by using the readers. Raleigh police, in North Carolina, recently said that in the first six months after installing the cameras, they alerted officers to 116 wanted people, and 41 people were arrested.
However, studies have found there is no real evidence that license plate readers actually have an effect on crime rates. And what constitutes a crime in one state may not be one in another and can therefore escalate tensions in communities already overtargeted by law enforcement.
In 2017, the ACLU of Northern California found that more than 80 agencies in a dozen states were sharing license plate reader database information — run by Flock’s main competitor Vigilant Solutions (now owned by Motorola) — with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in violation of state laws or sanctuary policies.
When asked by Vice whether Flock could be used by immigration authorities for deportation, Garrett Langley, the company’s CEO, said, “Yes, if it was legal in a state, we would not be in a position to stop them.” He added, “We give the customers the tools to decide and let them go from there.”
Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, activists have been concerned about the use of license plate readers to track people accessing abortion in states where it is illegal or crossing state lines to do so.
“Flock does not determine what a crime is,” the company told The Intercept. “We’d expect that local law enforcement will enforce those laws as they are legally or socially required.”
In addition to inundating police departments with marketing emails and appearing at conferences nationwide, Flock also has more intimate tactics to advertise its products.
In the process of being pitched Flock’s cameras, police Chief Todd Radford of Lakeway, Texas, was invited to a private dinner at an upscale restaurant in downtown Fort Worth, where he would have “the opportunity to mingle with other Flock customers as well as with other Chiefs from across the state,” according to an email obtained through a public records request.
It is partly due to the “totally inappropriate relationship” between the company and local law enforcement that the company has expanded so effectively, according to Maass of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Flock’s overall business model involves “co-opting government agencies to promote their product.”
“One of the reasons we work with HOAs is so that they can partner with their local police to provide the evidence needed to solve real crimes, not just post photos of allegedly suspicious individuals on social media,” Flock told The Intercept. “We will all be safer if we work together.”
In generating partnerships with private neighborhoods, however, police capitalize on a loophole in law: getting around restrictions on data collection. In Washington state, where it’s illegal to track plates, HOAs like Alder Meadow, in a wealthy Seattle suburb, share their access to the technology with local police. And since Fourth Amendment privacy rules do not apply to private citizens, HOA boards are not subject to any oversight.
Back in December 2020, Brown, the police sergeant in Lakeway, was working hard to persuade Texas communities to install the cameras. In an email to Flock’s Rachel Hansen, he said he was “planting a bug in the ear of the HOA for our biggest subdivision.”
Flock also persuaded Lakeway to hold a community engagement event where Brown helped pitch the product to the association. Hansen emailed Brown, “Thank you SO much for joining and handling all of those curve ball questions like a rock star. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to lend a helping hand to Flock and the Rough Hollow Community.”
“The Flock camera situation was one of several data points in which the former chief exceeded the scope of his authority.”
Not everyone weathered the Flock deal. Around the time of the camera fallout, Radford, the police chief, resigned from the department “upon request.”
“The Flock camera situation was one of several data points in which the former chief exceeded the scope of his authority,” Kilgore, the Lakeway mayor, told The Intercept. “He also failed to develop formal internal controls or policies on who could access or use the data from Flock.”
The strategy used in Lakeway to sell the Flock system to its community was replicated elsewhere. Numerous police departments across the country have also held events for HOAs to learn how to “assist law enforcement to help deter crime” and have a “hand in preventing porch pirates,” The Intercept’s investigation found. Some city police departments, like Saratoga and Ranchos Palos Verdes, both in California, offer grants to help HOAs buy the technology.
In exchange, according to the grant agreements, the HOAs had to provide sheriff’s departments with access to “locate, review and download video recordings and readings.” In the first two rounds of grants in Ranchos Palos Verdes, 14 HOAs received grants for cameras in 2021.
In the hands of untrained law enforcement, license plate readers can cause more harm than good. In 2014, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found a woman’s rights were violated after an erroneous license plate reader alert, that was not independently verified, led to a traffic stop in which she was detained and held at gunpoint. In 2020, police detained and handcuffed a Black mother and several children after a license plate scanner mistook their SUV for a stolen motorcycle from another state.
On a personal level, there is also misuse. Last October, in Kechi, Kansas, a police officer was arrested for improperly using Wichita Police Department’s Flock license plate reader technology to track the location of his estranged wife.
“Police aren’t even trained well enough to handle them to protect people’s data,” said Maass. “So how are you supposed to trust the homeowners associations with no law enforcement training, with no data protection training, with no cybersecurity training at all, to manage one of these systems?”
In neighborhood politics, where homeowners associations can already be divisive environments, the license plate scanner can stoke tensions. “Overreaching is problematic,” according to Paula Franzese, a law professor of Seton Hall University and expert in homeowners associations. “Sometimes a governing board charged with enforcing the rules can become too aggressive and too zealous.”
In multiple instances reviewed by The Intercept, HOAs installed the cameras without consulting the wider community. One case led to legal action. In 2021 in Indiana, a homeowner sued the Claybridge Homeowner Association for “trespassing onto her property, cutting down a tree without permission, and installing a surveillance camera without her consent.”
Flock will also sell their license plate readers to individuals without the backing of their HOA. An initiative was set up by a resident in Coral Gate, Florida, that led to the installation of 10 cameras in 2018 — and chaos in the neighborhood. Flock said it was uncommon for the company to sell to private individuals.
“They were very belligerent and opaque in how they went about it,” David Appell, a former resident of Coral Gate, told The Intercept. “They wouldn’t let anyone opt out. The administration was in their hands.”
HOAs often have private Facebook groups to discuss the inner workings of their community. As the license plate readers appeared across Coral Gate, group members turned on one another in the Facebook chat.
“I am very, very concerned of this additional intrusion of my home and life,” one wrote. “Why is this necessary? What is the necessity? What is this detecting? WHY?”
The license plate readers were ultimately removed.
Beyond the police and HOA network, Flock is working to expand its reach on a legislative level. The company has registered nearly 50 lobbyists across a dozen states in the last couple of years, according to public records reviewed by The Intercept.
In California — where some 20 percent of people live in HOAs — the company spent over half a million dollars lobbying for the Organized Retail Theft Grant Program, which passed the state legislature in 2022. The program, open to all police departments, was created to support law enforcement in preventing and responding to “organized retail or motor theft.”
Flock has also been registering lobbyists on a city level. In Providence City Council, in Rhode Island, the firm registered three employees as lobbyists. One, Laura Holland, a senior community affairs manager at Flock, was also registered as a lobbyist in Austin, Texas.
“We support policies that regulate the use of license plate readers, data security and data retention,” Flock said in a statement, “while also increasing public safety with unbiased, objective evidence.”
While some privacy legislation addresses biometric data — currently, Illinois, Texas, and Washington have laws that regulate facial recognition technology — few legislative efforts have been made to statutorily regulate license plate readers.
The result is a patchwork of sometimes ad hoc and wildly varied policies, even within the same state. In 2021, a New York Police Department memo said that the “field-of-view … is strictly limited to public areas and locations.” A four-hour drive away from the city in Elmira, New York, 50 Flock cameras were installed in January, with the city manager saying he was unable to disclose the exact locations.
“There isn’t really a lot of appetite at the state level for privacy protections. It’s a little bit like trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle.”
According to experts, implementing any regulation surrounding license plate readers is difficult.
“There isn’t really a lot of appetite at the state level for privacy protections,” said Yohnka of the ACLU of Illinois. “It’s a little bit like trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle.”
Others explain that at the heart of Flock’s sales pitch is how they straddle the intersection of security and privacy. For example, the company collects copious amounts of data — but only for 30 days. They share that data — but only with law enforcement.
“They’re able to explain that they don’t share data, but at the same time, extract use functionality of leveraging the data across law enforcement agencies,” said Donald Maye of IPVM, a surveillance industry research group. “They’re really having their cake and eating it too.”
And yet, as Flock continues to install its license plate readers and its surveillance network continues to expand across the country, some residents are suspicious about just exactly what the cameras are watching — and for whom.
“If you drive from your house to Dripping Springs to get some fine barbeque, you have become a subject to the system,” Kilgore, the mayor, said at the Lakeway City Council meeting, referring to the installation of the cameras in his community. “They can probably find out what you ordered on the way back.”
Update: March 25, 2023
This story has been updated to remove references to TALON — Flock now refers to its cross-jurisdictional data sharing system as a “national and statewide law enforcement search network” — and constitutional limits on data collection. The story has also been updated to include Flock’s contention, received after publication, that private camera owners can’t use “hot lists.”