Activist company

6 takeaways from a conversation with Flock Safety, the company whose cameras may be coming to Bloomington

Had things gone as planned on Feb. 11, Bloomington City Council would have been set to vote Monday night on a potential contract with Atlanta-based security firm Flock Safety to give police 10 cameras. number plate readers to be placed at various points. within the city.

Police said the cameras, which take photos of vehicles and use machine learning to determine license plate information, will help them solve crimes faster while using fewer man hours. Critics, including the Central Illinois Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that the proposed deal does not do enough to protect the privacy of city residents.

City council members were first planning to vote on the proposed contract on January 10, when it showed up as an agenda item seemingly without warning, before members voted 6-2 to delay approval of the contract until the City’s Technology Commission and the Public Safety and Community Relations Board of Directors has both had an opportunity to review the proposal.

Members of the Technology Board heard a detailed presentation on the cameras on January 25, but at the February 11 meeting of the PSCRB, there were not enough members present to achieve quorum. This postponed meeting is now set for Wednesday, February 23.

Meanwhile, WGLT spoke with Josh Thomas, vice president of external affairs at Flock Safety, about the company and how it operates in general. An edited and condensed version of this interview is included under Six Key Moments From This Conversation.

1. Motion-activated cameras could, in theory, take a photo of a person — but that photo isn’t searchable, Thomas said.

The way the cameras work is that the company has “a pole – usually a 14 foot pole with two feet under the ground where we place a camera on top and aim it at the street. It takes pictures of the back of a car while it The information our cameras can glean is the type of car, the make of the car, the color and the body style – coupe, sedan or van – any distinguishing marks such as roof bars or bumper stickers, aftermarket wheels, as well as license plate and plate condition Yes, if humans are walking in the middle of the street, a photo of a human could be taken – it is true. However, they will not appear in the search results because you are looking for cars and car descriptions. Thus, there is nothing identifiable about humans or people in the system.

2. Law enforcement was not Flock Safety’s original clientele. Individuals, small businesses, homeowners associations and neighborhood watch groups were.

The company’s founder “didn’t have any law enforcement experience — in fact, none of our early employees had any. We all lived in neighborhoods in the greater Atlanta metro area. So that was the first customer we started selling to…really, just community activists who said, “We need to do something about crime in our community.” From there, we started selling also to small businesses and any private entity that owned a road they cared about. What was really important was that we never wanted anyone to think they should go “do something” about a crime that had been committed.; it was always critical that they provide that evidence to law enforcement. That’s what was really interesting: initially they were selling to HOAs and businesses and then the police were using this technology to clarify cases.And they o nt says: “Hey, it’s great that these neighborhoods are using this powerful technology, but we have a few crime hotspots – can we put this in some places? That’s when we started selling directly to law enforcement: when they came to us about four years ago and said, ‘This is great technology. ‘is 10 times cheaper than anything else on the market. Let’s get into areas where (we) need it.’

3. A contract between a municipality, police department or individual and Flock is a subscription model service, similar to Netflix.

“So instead of selling the technology to people…we’re going out and upgrading the hardware. We’re upgrading to the latest and greatest hardware for our customers, so as long as they’re under contract, they will always have the latest and greatest technology.It’s a subscription model – annual contracts, the same way you would subscribe to a mobile phone plan, or Netflix, or any other. As soon as your contract is expired, you can renew it or not. If you don’t renew, we will pick up the material and bring it back to one of our warehouses.”

4. This contract may also include an additional service called “Advanced Search”.

The add-on package allows agencies to take a photo of a vehicle captured by another camera — think cellphone or Ring doorbell — and upload it to Flock’s system for research. Industry periodical Government Technology notes that the feature “costs $2,500 and $5,000 per year, depending on the number of Flock Safety cameras the agency operates.” Thomas added: “The basic package is: there’s an investigation, you’re going to find a suspicious license plate and you’re going to investigate. The advanced research package uses a few other pieces of machine learning to help (police) uncover more evidence in their investigation.”

The City of Bloomington and the Bloomington Police Department did not respond to a question from WGLT on Monday about whether this package was part of the proposed contract.

5. Despite protests that the cameras could be used to monitor already over-policed ​​communities, the company touts its products as a way to reduce “human bias”.

“People are naturally concerned about human biases. Some of the misconceptions people have are what will it do for historically marginalized members of (a) community. Will it target different groups, different personality types, people from different religious backgrounds? The answer is No. It’s actually capturing details of objects on a suspicious car, not people at all. We’re not focusing on people or faces – the types of things people get wrong. Human bias can creep into situations, so we try to mitigate that by giving you different types of evidence that reduce our… tendency to be biased. What we can do, it’s changing the narrative: it’s no longer “someone is suspicious” or a “gut instinct”. No, you know a car is stolen because you just received an alert: it’s about ‘a stolen vehicle objectively known and we are able to verify it with a photo. Now you can track those objective details and go arrest the people who deserve it. and stop focusing on anything other than that.”

6. The company touts deference to “democratic elected officials” and says it encourages meetings in advance, before a city council or other group votes to adopt the technology.

Again, the City of Bloomington and the Bloomington Police Department did not respond to a question from WGLT on Monday about whether meetings between Flock representatives and government officials took place before the proposed contract was announced. be included for the first time on the agenda of the municipal council on January 10.

Here’s what Thomas had to say: “We actually have a team – I’m part of this team – called the external affairs team who work with police chiefs and councils to make sure everyone has the education he needs on what this technology does We believe the best path to success is if a leader is interested and needed to help stop crime in their community, first and first of all, go in front of the board and share your plans, answer any questions they may have Second, have open forums with the community – engage active or real members who live in that community and what they think about it What their concerns would be Listen to them and hopefully address them through new policies or new uses of technology – maybe it’s just rolling out to where they want place the tech logy (this is disturbing). It’s just all of these types of things that lead us to believe that yes, you should always get the public’s opinion.