Surveillance technology is getting cheaper and easier to access. That goes for the police, but it also goes for private citizens. A neighborhood in the City of Miami has been divided over how they should be using technologies like virtual fence.
The Coral Gate neighborhood of Miami is a quiet, green section of the city where neighbors have succeeded in getting a wall built around half of it, and blocking most of the other entrances to the area with permanent street barriers.
The result of the years-long effort is that there are only four ways to access its 463 homes with a vehicle. The neighborhood just east of Coral Gables has little traffic, and compared to other parts of Miami, there is little crime.
"It’s a very, very low crime neighborhood,” said Commander Daniel Garrido, the head of the Miami Police Department for the section of the city that includes Coral Gate.
But last year some Coral Gate residents embarked on a new project that detractors fear is dividing the close-knit neighborhood: About a quarter of the homes have paid a private company to set up technology that tracks the license plate of every vehicle that enters the community. The virtual fence has drawn protests of creeping mass surveillance for residents who resent the technology, and garnered support from others who are leaning into the ability of surveillance to fight crime.
To boot, the technology that has been unleashed in Coral Gate is completely unregulated and unmonitored by state or local laws.
The tension here mirrors questions that communities across the nation are facing as pervasive surveillance technology gets cheaper and more accessible to private citizens and neighborhood groups.
By all accounts, the push to blanket the neighborhood with surveillance technology came after a woman was carjacked at gunpoint in her driveway two years ago, a rare but alarming crime that shocked residents.
“They put a gun to her head and one of the guys said to get out of the car. At that time she really thought they were gonna shoot her in the back of her head,” said Matthew McDonald, a longtime resident whose wife was the victim. “Thankfully for whatever reason, something spooked them and they actually just got the car and about an hour and a half later, all four of them got caught.”
McDonald was inside the home while the crime happened.
“At that point I started thinking: ‘I don’t feel safe in my own house,’” he said.
Following the incident, McDonald estimates that he and his wife spent $5,000 on home surveillance equipment. They paid for cameras and additional lighting around the perimeter of their property.
It was around that time when McDonald met Jorge Arauz, an executive editor of lifestyle publications including Brickell and Key Biscayne magazines, who grew up in and moved back to Coral Gate in 2016. The two discussed security and crime prevention and began looking at different technologies that could help in the effort. Arauz took the lead, becoming the name and face for the campaign that followed.
The duo settled on Flock, and during the summer of 2018, Arauz and McDonald started an initiative to set up license plate readers. “We posted to a neighborhood Facebook group. We had volunteer neighbors go door to door to explain this in English and in Spanish, we printed out flyers to get the word out,” Arauz said. The idea was to collect $100 from enough households in the neighborhood to pay for cameras that would cover every entrance. Flock charges $2,000 per camera per year and there are four entry points.
“We knew what we needed to do was get at least a quarter of the neighborhood behind this,” Arauz said. “It was really an education campaign on our part to be able to educate people on this system, and the benefits of it and why it’s a good thing to add to our neighborhood.”
A NEIGHBORHOOD DIVIDED
The push to convert neighbors into contributors for the security system grated some residents, who say the neighborhood Facebook group soon became vitriolic, with people taking sides about the initiative.
“Anybody who remotely had concerns about this was either insulted or blocked or both,” said David Paul Appell, a travel writer and co-owner of a social media management company.
Arauz alleges he only blocked people or pushed back on them when they started abusing and hurling insults at him.
Some residents worried that the carjacking and a few property crimes were being used to paint the picture of a crime-infested neighborhood in need of drastic action.
“My first gut reaction was this is yet another invasion of privacy in exchange for perceived benefit of security, which I don't believe in the case of this neighborhood is necessary,” said Appell’s husband, Jose Balido, also a travel writer who co-owns the social media management company with Appell. “It's almost laughable to be in as pleasant, lovely, green and verdant a neighborhood as this and to think that there are like evil doers stalking the streets waiting to break into homes. It's just not the case.”
The push for the technology had an urgency some residents just couldn’t understand.
Tom Pasawicz found humor in the situation, likening Arauz’s efforts to a late-night TV sales pitch. “It was the Ginsu knife of security initiatives. ‘You must act now.’ ‘Time limited,’” said the web designer and programmer. “He rushed it through.”
The effort met its goal in mid-summer 2018. About 100 of the 463 households agreed to pay $100 each annually toward the system, making it a reality. The first cameras were set up, but the systems were placed on the right of way, on public property. The neighborhood’s volunteer homeowners association wrote a letter to the city questioning the legality of the cameras on public property. At an ensuing association meeting, Arauz and members of the board exchanged insults.
“A lot of attempts were made for it to be a civilized meeting but it just got ugly really fast,” said Julie Hood, a public-school teacher who is on the board and involved in Coral Gate crime watch. Hood is also a neighbor who had paid $100 toward the Flock system.
Arauz conceded that the meeting with the association got nasty. He saw it as an attempt to block a serious security initiative that had broad support from the community.
Eventually, Arauz found a group of neighbors already paying into the system who were willing to host the solar-powered cameras on their private properties. Six cameras can now be found throughout the neighborhood, four at the entrances and two on the streets in the middle of the community. Signs announcing the area is being monitored are placed throughout the neighborhood.
“It’s something that we decided as a neighborhood — why wait for the next armed carjacking? Why not just be proactive instead of reactive and really implement this system?” Arauz said.
During Thanksgiving weekend in 2018, the cameras had their first success story. A house was burglarized and a car stolen from the home, and a neighbor’s home surveillance system helped police nab the suspects — along with the stolen property — with the assistance of Flock cameras.
“It did play a huge role in affecting an arrest on an individual that had done the burglary,” said Miami Police Commander Garrido. “It’s a huge, huge help to have the tag of a vehicle used in a crime.”
“Any crime prevention strategies or initiatives that any community can take are obviously always welcome by the city of Miami Police Department,” he said.
McDonald, whose wife was carjacked, said that the cameras make her feel “more secure” in the community, and he thinks they also act as a deterrent for other crimes.
“My primary concern is that it acts as a way of hopefully stopping crimes, even minor crimes, when people see the signs and the cameras and say, ‘Not this neighborhood,’ and they go to the next one,” he said.
‘LIKE A BIG SECRET’
Julie Hood had bought into the system without giving it much thought, but over time she became concerned. A camera went up directly across the street from her home. “I do every now and then think about the fact that somebody could look at the data and see all my comings and goings if they wanted to,” she said.
Neighbors primarily used an open Facebook group to talk about things happening in the community. But then a closed Facebook group was started exclusively for people who paid into the system.
Arauz said he started the closed group because the open group includes people who have moved out of the neighborhood. “This group was meant for safety updates. So if you’re allowing everyone into the group, it’s not very safe,” he said.
“It’s such a paranoia,” Hood said. “It’s like a big secret.”
Tom Pasawicz suggested the online divide could have an opposite effect, making the neighborhood more unsafe. “Because we are now a very divided neighborhood. You have the ‘Flockers’ and you have the people who are not ‘Flockers,’” he said. “A neighborhood is safe when the neighbors communicate.”
Flock offers what it calls a “safe list” for customers who use the technology. It is meant to let neighbors opt out of having their license plates tracked, partly to help smooth over community relations for those who are “really uncomfortable with the cameras,” according to the company.
But the decision of whether to honor the “safe list” is left to whoever personally entered into the contract with Flock. In Coral Gate’s case, Arauz has decided not to let any neighbors opt out, saying those who live in the community could commit crimes themselves.
“It just doesn’t make sense for us to have a ‘safe list’ because it’s not a prerequisite to have a background check to live in our neighborhood,” Arauz said. “We haven’t implemented it and we won’t implement it.”
In contrast, Flock says most of its clients make use of the “safe list” feature.
"It’s another sign of bad faith,” said Appell. "There’s nobody committing crimes here. It’s unbelievable."
For Hood, it’s all too much to handle. Flock is “trying to solve a problem that doesn't really exist” in Coral Gate, she said, adding that she feels “completely safe” here. Sure, she locks her doors at night, but she’s done that her whole life. She paid into the system once, but says she won’t give any money for the cameras again.
“I just don't like the group of people in general that are subscribing to this system and I'm a little embarrassed I'm one of them,” she said. “I don't like what this has done to my neighborhood.”
NO REGULATIONS IN FLORIDA
The Atlanta-based company Flock is privately owned, and currently operates in 33 states. The company has contracts across Florida, and has license plate readers operating in 20 communities between Homestead and West Palm Beach, according to the company.
The company says it does not own the license plate data that is collected by the cameras. Rather, that data belongs to whoever entered into the contract with them. In the case of Coral Gate, this means that Arauz personally owns the data of his neighbors’ comings and goings. Arauz said he doesn’t personally access the data, and that police can access it only after contacting the company directly, with a police report in hand.
“We can’t control someone who enters into a contract with us,” said Flock CEO Garrett Langley. “So what we do is delete the data after 30 days.” He continued: “We want to make sure we don’t end up looking like Facebook in 10 years. I don’t want Flock to be a force for evil, I want it to be a force for good.”
David Maass, a researcher with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy-rights watchdog group, said residents should be concerned about how private license plate reader companies use their data.“These technologies engage in mass surveillance in the sense that they collect information on every driver regardless of whether that person has been suspected of being involved in a crime,” he said.
A small handful of states have banned the use of license plate readers by private individuals and groups, citing privacy concerns for other citizens. States that only allow law enforcement to use the technology include Maine, New Hampshire and Arkansas.
Florida law has no such restrictions on private use of the technology.
In a court deposition for a failed challenge to the Arkansas law, an executive for a license plate reader company said his company “earns substantial revenue” selling data captured by cameras to insurance companies, financial service companies and firms that repossess vehicles, in addition to sharing it with law enforcement. Flock is adamant that it does not sell any data to third parties, though it explicitly reserves the right use some customer data for marketing purposes.
“People should be keeping a close eye on the creep between corporate and government surveillance and ensuring that the government has control over public safety priorities and aren't being unceasingly influenced by the profit motives of companies,” Maass said.
A list of guidelines for the license plate reader technology has been developed by Florida’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice Information Systems Council, a state board. The guidelines call for regular audits and evaluations to make sure license plate data is accurate and is not being abused. The list of best practices only applies to law enforcement agencies — not private individuals or groups — and are not legal requirements.
“Legislatures have been historically behind in updating laws to deal with with contemporary technologies,” Maass said. “The companies who sell surveillance technologies like this know that the laws haven't caught up and are rushing to get it adopted in communities as quickly as possible so the people accept it before laws can be written to rein it in.”
The broad adoption of surveillance technology by governments and fellow residents alike have set the tone for license plate readers becoming more widely available for communities like Coral Gate, Arauz said.
He noted that every visit to the grocery store involves being watched by private CCTV cameras and passing municipal street cameras. And he points out that some neighbors who have complained about the Flock system have Amazon Ring systems and home surveillance cameras that capture images of him every time he passes by their homes.
“Most of us have our own home security systems that capture as far as the front door of your neighbor across the street,” Arauz said. “There’s really no expectation to privacy in the public right of way anymore.”