Providence officials rush to install automatic license plate readers as privacy backlash builds

“All law abiding citizens deserve a safe and secure city to live in. And anyone who questions that, well…”
Photo for Providence officials rush to install automatic license plate readers as privacy backlash builds

Published on July 27, 2022
By Steve Ahlquist

Early Wednesday Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza, Providence City Council President John Igliozzi, Commissioner of Public Safety Steven Paré, Chief of Police Colonel Hugh Clements Jr. and Flock Safety representative Josh Thomas held a press conference to update the public regarding the deployment of Flock Safety Automatic License Plate Readers (ALPRs).

See: Providence Police to install License Plate Readers without public or legislative input

Providence is poised to install 25 automated ALPRs in high crime areas throughout the city over the next 30 days. The system takes still photos of every license plate in its view, noting other significant details about the cars such as bumper stickers in the process. The information is stored in “the cloud” and owned by the City of Providence. Flock Safety’s Josh Thomas confirmed that his company will share the information collected in Providence with other law enforcement agencies throughout the country who participate in the the system.

This system of mass surveillance, and the collection of data by law enforcement on the whereabouts and locations of law-abiding residents has significant impacts on civil liberties. The ACLU of Rhode Island points out that “[I]n the absence of legislation, as the scope of this technology expands, the privacy rights of Rhode Islanders will be solely at the mercy of police departments and a private company.”

One example provided by the ACLU: “[S]ince the overturning of Roe v. Wade, where interstate travel and any data gathered therefrom has become an incredibly sensitive issue, the urgency of this lack of data security has never been more clear or salient.”

Even if Rhode Island officials are not concerned with tracking people traveling to our state to secure abortion services, a law enforcement agency in Texas will be able to get information from Flock Safety upon request, as long as they are also subscribers to the system.

There are also risks to the undocumented. Though Flock Safety’s Josh Thomas maintains that the company has no relationship with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) many other law enforcement agencies in the United States do. What are the assurances that such data will not get into the hands of Federal immigration authorities?

“This Flock System is about fighting crime. About making criminals who want to live in this city – feel uncomfortable,” said Providence City Council President John Igliozzi. “All law abiding citizens deserve a safe and secure city to live in. And anyone who questions that, well…”

Council president Igliozzi’s presence and outspoken support for Flock Safety’s ALPRs gave the appearance that a majority of the city council is in support of adopting the system – now. This is far from the truth. Fully two-thirds of President Igliozzi’s fellow councilmembers sponsored a resolution on July 21 to delay the implementation of the system pending a full city council review. Council President Igliozzi referred the resolution to the Finance Committee.

Councilmembers Rachel Miller, John Goncalves, Helen Anthony, Katherine Kerwin, Carmen Castillo, Pedro Espinal, Mary Kay Harris, Nirva LaFortune, David Salvatore and Oscar Vargas all support a full review – before the system is activated – and have floated the possibility of passing an ordinance guiding the use of ALPRs, not simply accepting a policy adopted by the police department in consultation with Flock Safety.

“Law abiding citizens should not be subject to continuous surveillance without public oversight on how their data and privacy are collected and used by a third party,” said Councilmember Goncalves, who praised Councilmember Miller for introducing the resolution.

Not every municipality in Rhode Island is welcoming Flock Safety. On June 13, the Portsmouth Town Council voted to approve a one-year pilot program placing ALPRs on the Mt. Hope Bridge to aid in suicide prevention, but after hearing from residents concerned about potential impacts on civil liberties, the Council reversed that decision on July 11.

The ACLU of Rhode Island responded to this morning’s press conference in Providence with a statement from Executive Director Steven Brown:

While purporting to promote ‘transparency and accountability,’ the Providence Police Department is moving ahead with the implementation of an incredibly invasive surveillance camera system even though a majority of City Council members have signed on to a City Council resolution urging its delay. City officials are moving ahead with this surveillance system without the benefit of any public hearings, instead offering to consider holding one only after the cameras are already being used. And their alleged support for accountability rings even more hollow in light of their opposition to the passage of any ordinance that would restrict the ways in which this surveillance technology can be used or that would establish enforceable penalties for its misuse.

As the manufacturers of this technology regularly tout more, and more expansive, ways of tracking people and their vehicles with this equipment, the dangers to fundamental privacy rights simply cannot be brushed away. Further, one need only look at the many highly publicized incidents where Providence police officers have been found, against departmental policy, not to have activated their body cameras to recognize that promises of ‘audits’ and assurances that the Flock Safety technology will not be abused are meaningless.

In short, the way this technology is being deployed by Providence undercuts transparency and accountability. Such a grossly unregulated and deeply intrusive police surveillance system should be of concern to all who value privacy.

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