July 7, 2023 — The Niagara County Sheriff's Office will be working with a private firm to install a new countywide license plate reading system that has been described by the American Civil Liberties Union as "dangerously powerful and unregulated."
Sheriff Mike Filicetti announced Thursday that his office is partnering with the company Flock Safety to install license plate readers at 67 "strategically located" spots throughout Niagara County.
The press release announcing the agreement describes the system as capable of providing law enforcement with the make, model, color and license plate from the rear of vehicles traveling throughout the county. According to the release, it will allow law enforcement to collect "actionable evidence" while sending "real-time alerts" "within seconds" if a wanted or stolen vehicle passes by a camera.
Flock Safety technology is used by law enforcement agencies in other communities to trace stolen vehicles, track criminal suspects tied to shootings and other crimes and to enhance recovery efforts under Amber and Silver alert systems which are employed during searches for kidnapped children and elderly adults who have been reported missing.
The sheriff's office said the plate readers will not be used to enforce traffic law violations or to "track citizen movement," nor will they take photos of vehicle occupants or employ facial recognition technology. The release notes that all data collected through the system is stored in the cloud, deleted every 30 days on a rolling basis and is not sold or shared with third parties.
Filicetti described the cameras as a "game changer" for local law enforcement, which the release notes will aid in "both proactive and reactive crime fighting" while providing "valuable information when investigating crime."
"Many communities have seen a reduction in crime by utilizing this technology as a crime-fighting tool," Filicetti said.
According to the ACLU, a non-profit organization that advocates for protection of individual rights and liberties, as of mid-February, Flock Safety automatic license plate recognition systems were in place in more than 2,000 cities in 42 states.
On its website, the ACLU encourages residents living in communities where Flock Safety systems are not in place to "pump the brakes" on them.
The ACLU does not object to every use of license plate readers; the organization suggests they're OK to use when searching for a stolen vehicle or a missing child.
It does, however, advocate for fair use, subject to "proper checks and balances," to ensure the devices are not disproportionately used in low-income and minority communities.
In its advisory, the ACLU says Flock's system allows private camera users to generate their own "hot lists," which target listed plates. ACLU contends that the system will also allow all plates to be run against the state police watchlist and the FBI's National Crime Information Center, and that expansion of Flock systems is part of a larger aim by the company to build a "giant camera network that records people's comings and goings across the nation."
"Such a system provides even small-town sheriffs access to a sweeping and powerful mass-surveillance tool, and allows big actors like federal agencies and large urban police departments to access the comings and goings of vehicles in even the smallest of towns," ACLU argues.
Daniel Schwarz, senior privacy and technology strategist at New York Civil Liberties Union, said deployment of the system in Niagara County brings an "entirely new level of surveillance to New York communities."
"This highly invasive software gives the government free rein to track residents' most basic movements: where you work, who you see, which health providers you visit, which protests you go to, and more," he said. "People shouldn't live their lives in fear of constant tracking and monitoring — it's past time for tighter restrictions on this growing centralized mass surveillance network."
Josh Thomas, vice president of policy and communications for Flock Safety, described ACLU's characterization of the company's technology use and expansion efforts as "factually untrue."
Thomas said Flock actually agrees with several of ACLU's recommendations for the gathering of data and retention of information, and is not looking to track people's movements, but rather to concentrate solely on helping law enforcement root out individuals who have committed or are suspected of having committed crimes.
"Our perspective is that actually we should all be empowering law enforcement to have the tools they need to capture evidence," Thomas said. "More than half of violent crimes go unsolved and I would argue that is a problem and it's a problem that can be solved with the right capture of evidence."
Thomas stressed that data collected in Niagara County through the plate reader system will be erased after 30 days and is not used or sold by third parties.
In instances where footage is part of a criminal investigation, he said data can be kept beyond the 30-day window in keeping with the local law enforcement agency's evidence retention policies.
"If the data is not going to be used as part of an investigation, no one sees it," he said. "It actually gets permanently deleted. Nobody in our company can access it. We don't sell it."
He said the sheriff's office will have the ability to input individual license plates as part of a "customized hot list," provided the vehicles involved are tied to active law enforcement investigations. However, he said, each input must be accompanied by a reason for the inclusion of plates on any "hot list." All inputs are recorded as part of the system's permanent audit of log-ins, Thomas said.
"It can't be just keeping tabs on people," he said. "There has to be a law enforcement purpose for doing so."
Thomas said Flock Safety is helping communities served by its technology to solve more than 1,000 crimes per day. He said footage collected by the company's system aided law enforcement in capturing the suspect in a mass shooting in Atlanta in May and, more recently, obtained evidence being used in the ongoing investigation of an Independence Day shooting in Philadelphia.
In Niagara County, Thomas said residents can expect similar results once the company's license plate readers are in place.
The overarching goal, he said, is to provide police investigators with information they can use to apprehend individuals who are wanted for criminal activity and to aid in the investigation of shootings and other violent crimes.
"We do live in a world where there is the reality that scary and terrible things can happen," Thomas said. "We want to be able to provide our communities with the tools they need to mitigate the risk and solve crimes."
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