LOS ANGELES – On a quiet road south of Ventura Boulevard, two cameras on a pole watch over the road, facing opposite directions.
A block away, another brace of cameras sit sentry. Together, they constantly film the two points of entry to a closed loop of public streets in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Nearby, on a dual-screen setup in the basement of his hillside house, Robert Shontell pulls up hundreds of snippets of footage captured by the cameras earlier that day. Each shows a car, time-stamped and tagged with the make, model, paint color and license plate.
He searches for a silver Honda spotted between the hours of 1 and 2 p.m. After some scrolling, a shot of my car — and me — pops up.
“The most surprising thing is just how many cars drive through the neighborhood each day,” Shontell said.
And every one ends up filmed by the motion-activated cameras, then tagged and entered in the database by the machine vision software powering the system.
Residents of the neighborhood had pooled their money to rent these cameras, and the software behind them, from Flock Safety — an Atlanta-based company that has found clients for its automatic license plate readers in safety-conscious communities, homeowners’ associations and local police departments across 30 states.
The company’s pitch: With its cameras, residents can track every vehicle that passes through their neighborhood.
If a burglar strikes, they can check and see which cars were spotted in the area around the time of the crime, and pass that footage on to police. To allay privacy concerns, only the residents have access to the footage, and it automatically deletes after 30 days.
Costs vary depending on the client, but Flock generally charges $2,000 per camera per year for the service, and reports that more than 400 communities are using its product.
Flock is backed by serious Silicon Valley investment: The company was a member of prominent startup accelerator Y Combinator’s summer class of 2017 and has since raised nearly $20 million in funding from tech heavyweights including Matrix Partners and Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund.
“Our cameras are helping solve two crimes every single day right now,” Josh Thomas, Flock’s head of marketing, said.
The company said it couldn’t share details of every case but did note that the technology was integral to a recent arrest of a ring of 24 sexual predators in north Georgia, and local media outlets report a steady drumbeat of burglaries and car thefts that Flock helped to solve.
Flock’s push to put a camera on every corner comes at a time when smart cameras and social media are combining to create a newly paranoid model of neighborhood life.
Message boards on Nextdoor, a social service that requires users to verify their addresses to ensure that only true locals are allowed to post, are rife with reports of suspicious noises, cars and people.
Footage from Ring, a video doorbell company, often ends up on Nextdoor or shared on its in-house social network, Neighbors.
Recent reporting from Motherboard has revealed that local police have signed secret agreements to hawk Ring systems to their local communities, and BuzzFeed found that the company is testing out facial recognition technology with its clients in Ukraine.
License-plate reader technology, used by the Los Angeles Police Department and other police agencies, has raised concerns among privacy advocates.
While the technology is more accurate than its machine vision cousin, facial recognition software, false positives remain a risk.
California legislators in 2015 passed a law regulating how public agencies can use automatic license plate readers. Recent pushback from privacy advocates, backed by research indicating that police may not be following the law, prompted the state auditor this summer to launch a probe into the technology’s use.
Flock’s extension of the same technology into the private sphere raises another set of concerns: Private citizens are unlikely to receive the same training, or be subject to the same oversight, as public employees.