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License plate-reading cameras are here to stay in central Ohio, some privacy advocates are concerned

 A camera scans license plates
Flock Safety
This Flock Safety license plate camera scans the license plates of passing cars.

The city of Reynoldsburg is renewing its contract for license-plate reading surveillance cameras.

At a July city council meeting, Reynoldsburg Police Chief Curtis Baker said he doesn’t see the camera system going anywhere anytime soon.

Baker told council that in the more than one year since their installation, the department's 22 fixed plate-reading cameras have helped police get guns and drugs off the street, recover stolen vehicles and protect domestic violence victims.

“I think when I presented this, when we first purchased it, I think I made the comment that this is the best piece of technology I've seen in law enforcement in my entire career. I still stand by that today,” Baker said.

The department also has a mobile unit that was first used at the city’s Fourth of July fireworks.

The motion-activated cameras take a picture of the back of a vehicle as it passes. Then, police can use that information to solve crime and even find missing people. Baker said the cameras take the guesswork out of police investigations.

On July 24, Reynoldsburg City Council approved a new five-year contract to keep the cameras with Georgia-based Flock Safety. The contract comes at a total cost of $290,000.

Plate-reading cameras

Josh Thomas, Flock VP of policy and communications, used a yellow Mazda to explain how the company’s system works.

“So, what the investigator can do in Flock, they can go in our system, and they can literally type in Mazda, yellow, the time frame, the location and they can get from that a license plate and use that sort of suspect information to continue with the rest of their investigation,” he said.

The cameras can also alert police if they detect stolen vehicles or license plates tied to active police warrants.

Thomas says about 160 law enforcement agencies in Ohio use Flock cameras. They're also used by businesses, schools, governments, neighborhood associations and universities.

“I think most of our students are probably not aware of the number of cameras that we have on campus. But I tell you who is aware – the criminal elements."
Satoru Persons, OSU director of communications and security technology

Surveillance technology at work

For just over a year, The Ohio State University has had more than 60 Flock license-plate cameras in its network of more than 5,000 cameras on and near campus.

“And in terms of specific locations, I can't get into that, obviously. But they're in public the right way,” said Satoru Persons, director of communications and security technology for the university.

He noted that the license plate cameras aren’t video cameras; they capture still images. Many of the university’s other security cameras are video cameras, though.

Persons said the license plate cameras are tied to the National Crime Information Center, the United States' main database for tracking crime. Because of that, they can flag vehicles from out of the area or even out of state. OSU shares information with Columbus police when they get a notification for a suspect vehicle off campus, he said.

Persons said in addition to helping solve crimes that have already happened, the cameras provide important information to officers responding to incidents in progress, “so that they’re not walking in blind. Right?”

Persons calls the cameras effective and said security technology – especially as part of a layered security approach – makes the campus safer.

“I think most of our students are probably not aware of the number of cameras that we have on campus. But I tell you who is aware – the criminal elements because they're looking for those things,” Persons said.

“It’s like the Wild West. Here in Ohio, we have zero statewide laws governing the use of this type of technology."
Gary Daniels, chief lobbyist at ACLU of Ohio

Privacy concerns

The cameras may help solve or even prevent some crimes, but not everyone is sold. American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Chief Lobbyist Gary Daniels believes the cameras come with one big problem: their use isn’t regulated by law.

He said there is no state law, and to his knowledge no local laws, that restrict how surveillance cameras can be used – meaning it’s up to camera users to set internal policies or limits.

“So, what is it deployed for exactly? Who makes those decisions? What is the data used or how long is it kept?” Daniels said. “It’s like the Wild West. Here in Ohio, we have zero statewide laws governing the use of this type of technology."

Daniels admits cameras have had some success in solving crimes.

But he worries about what he calls mission creep - or a gradual shift in objectives. He notes that plate-reading cameras could track someone to a protest, place of worship, gay bar or gun store, causing major privacy concerns.

Daniels said while the initial intent may be to solve crimes, “the move is on and it has been underway for quite some time to have round the clock surveillance of entire cities, and that will be the new future.”

"Our goal here is not creating databases of license plates. Our goal is let's provide evidence to police."
Josh Thomas, Flock Safety spokesperson

Finding balance

Flock spokesman Thomas said privacy is part of the company’s package. He said data belongs to customers and is deleted after 30 days, unless saved externally for an investigation. And, when someone uses the system, they have to give a search reason, which is auditable information.

Plus, Thomas says information about who owns vehicles isn't stored in Flock's system.

“It's because our goal here is not creating databases of license plates. Our goal is let's provide evidence to police,” Thomas said.

OSU’s Persons said the university is sensitive to privacy rights. And, while 5,000 cameras sound like a lot – they cover a large area.

“You know, Ohio State University is a large city in and of itself. We have 100,000 staff and students that are here working on a daily basis. We have a very large medical center that we provide support for,” Persons said.

He also noted that there’s no way all of the university’s cameras could be watched at once. For the most part, a single camera or cameras are pulled up in reaction to a particular incident.

Still, Daniels and other civil rights advocates want more oversight.

"You can pass restrictions, regulations, laws that will allow law enforcement to use this type of technology for certain limited purposes, while still doing your best to protect the privacy of Ohioans,” Daniels said.

He said finding that balance is crucial. In the meantime, a few Ohio communities, including Dayton and Yellow Springs, have taken to holding public hearings before the installation of surveillance technology, so residents understand what will be happening in their communities, Daniels said.

Allie Vugrincic has been a radio reporter at WOSU 89.7 NPR News since March 2023.