Flock Safety, a growing company that sells license plate readers to police and neighborhoods across the United States, has an ambitious mission: to eliminate crime.
Since its inception in 2017, Flock says it has contracts with more than 1,200 law enforcement partners in more than 40 states. It provides its services to more than 2,000 neighborhoods and is expanding its products beyond license plate readers to include a gunshot detection system.
Now privacy advocates are warning that the vast surveillance network could be used as a weapon against people seeking abortions in states that have enacted bans and restrictions on the practice following the Supreme Court ruling. of the United States to repeal federal protections against abortion, including allowing police to monitor abortion clinics and vehicles that are seen around them.
Technology like Flock’s could be used to “criminalise people seeking reproductive health and further erode people’s ability to move about their daily lives without being tracked and traced,” said Chris Gilliard, technology researcher at Social Science Research Council, an independent non-profit research organization. .
Flock says the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion and warnings about how law enforcement can use her services in abortion-related prosecutions haven’t prompted her to reconsider her mission: ” Flock’s mission as a company is to eliminate crime,” Josh Thomas, vice president, said Flock’s president of external affairs. “Our position at Flock remains consistent in response to the Dobbs decision. Our view is that we do not enact laws and our mission is not specific to any particular law.
Thomas said the company “trusts” and “provides the technology” to “democratically elected governing bodies and their chosen law enforcement agencies, to enforce the laws they enact.”
“We expect cities in California to operate differently than cities in Texas, Illinois or Rhode Island,” he continued. “It would therefore be inaccurate to characterize Flock as either for or against a particular issue. We support local governments in enforcing their local laws.
License plate reader companies are just one of many technology companies that are face scrutiny for how they provide data or technology to law enforcement seeking to prosecute abortion cases. In Augustfor example, Facebook was criticized for providing Nebraska police with the private messages between a mother and her daughter who were being investigated for allegedly performing an illegal abortion.
Information collected by companies like Flock is particularly alarming, experts say, because it can help police paint a very detailed picture of the movements of specific vehicles and individuals.
License plate readers, which are usually installed on street lights, overpasses or police cars, capture details of passing cars and help police track vehicles passing through certain locations or neighborhoods.
Information is collected into a database, which police can search to see where certain vehicles have been or which cars have been in a certain area for a specific period of time.
Flock’s website says its products help capture “objective evidence” which is then run through machine learning software that allows the company, for example, to help police identify vehicles that may be traveling with the suspect car. The company says police can also upload their own image of a car and the software will “match it to vehicles recorded by Flock security cameras within the last 30 days.”
Flock’s Talon platform, its nationwide law enforcement search network, also allows the police departments it works with to share their license plate images with hundreds of other police departments across the country. Therefore, law enforcement in a state where abortion is legal may share data with police in a state where abortion is prohibited. For example, in California, the Vallejo Police Stationwhich detected nearly 400,000 vehicles last month, shares data from its license plate reader with law enforcement in Texas and Arizona.
Flock says he doesn’t own the data and points out that residents can see how the city collects data through Flock’s Transparency Portal.
“Cities and/or law enforcement own the data and they decide — not Flock — who they share their images with and how they want to enforce their laws,” Thomas said.
Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties organization, said he hopes current and potential Flock clients in places where abortion is legal will consider the Flock’s position. company about abortion laws and “will ask the question: can I trust this company with our employee data?
Many surveillance companies market their services as a way to increase public safety, but “Flock Safety’s position illustrates how surveillance isn’t really about benefiting society or protecting individuals – it’s about to uphold the political goals of those in power,” he said.