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A national mass surveillance system boosted by artificial intelligence (AI) took root in another state.
The town council of Jackson, Wyoming, agreed in a close vote last month to install the 30 solar-powered license plate recognition (LPR) cameras along their streets and traffic lights, which feeds into a centralized surveillance system managed by the private company Flock Safety. The town is the first in the state of Wyoming to install the cameras.
Council members who agreed to the measure expressed reluctance with their decision. Councilman Jonathan Schechter indicated his belief that the cameras marked a negative trend down an undesirable path.
“I don’t like this particular arc of this particular part of history,” said Schechter. “I’m screaming ‘stop’ as I vote ‘yes.’”
The cameras in Jackson are part of the “Falcon” line, which sends instant alerts to law enforcement. There are different models of the AI surveillance technology, each named after birds: Raven, an audio device for detecting sounds of crime such as gunshots, breaking glass, sawing metal, and screeching tires; Wing, which combs through thousands of hours of footage for specific vehicle identifiers for police; and Condor, which provides a live feed with zooming capabilities. The model names match the company name, Flock Safety, which calls its AI-powered mass surveillance system “TALON.”
TALON has stirred up controversy for its similarities to the technology in science fiction realities portrayed by TV dramas like “Person of Interest” and “Black Mirror,” both of which first aired 12 years ago. In the former, the government relies on an AI program that predicts crime by monitoring the public through surveillance video and all other electronic communications. Multiple episodes of the latter, each of which are stand-alone dramas reminiscent of the “Twilight Zone,” touch on the abuses and extremes of government-involved mass surveillance.
Unlike its TV drama counterparts, Flock Safety says their cameras only capture and retain data on license plates and vehicles — not people — for 30 days or the timeframe required by state and local law.
Yet, much like “Person of Interest,” the real-world AI program by Flock Safety can predict personal associations through “convoy analysis,” which identifies proximity and travel patterns of vehicles. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) characterized Flock Safety’s technology as “Orwellian,” following an investigative report released last year.
Flock Safety allows police to obtain unfettered access to a suspect’s vehicle history over time across state lines, known as “multi-geo search.” It also allows law enforcement to search for “vehicle fingerprints” compiled by its AI. That not only includes traditional features like vehicle make, type, and color, but unique features such as bumper stickers and decals.
Over 2,000 cities across 43 states have installed Flock Safety cameras, according to the company. Civilians may also purchase the cameras and opt to share their footage in real time with law enforcement; hundreds of homeowners associations (HOAs) have turned to the devices as their preferred security.
With their Flock Safety purchase, private camera owners may have their cameras alert them to customized “hot lists” of license plates. Pings on those hot lists are automatically run against state police watchlists and the FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC). Law enforcement receives immediate notification of any hits against their state watchlist or the NCIC.
Flock Safety’s technology may be used for more than LPR surveillance. CEO and co-founder, Garrett Langley, told Vice News in 2021 that his technology could possibly be used by immigration authorities to deport illegal immigrants.
“Yes, if it was legal in a state, we would not be in a position to stop them. I don’t think we would be in a position to encourage it either,” said Langley. “We give our customers the tools to decide and let them go from there.”
Flock began installing its cameras in 2017, the year it was founded. Langley credited personal experiences of property crime in Atlanta, Georgia, for the inspiration to create the company. Prior to Flock Safety, Langley launched a car subscription service called Clutch and a live events mobile technology company called Experience; he sold the latter company to Cox Enterprises for $200 million in 2014. Matt Feury, the other co-founder, followed Langley from Experience.
Flock Safety accrued $230 million in starting venture capital from Andreessen Horowitz, Matrix Partners, Initialized Capital, Axon, Bedrock Capital, Founders Fund, and Y-Combinator. In the last few years, Flock Safety has raised around $380 million; according to the company, its valuation sits at around $3.5 billion.
Flock Safety’s main competitor, Motorola Solutions, also operates a similar database.