At the dining-room table of his Magnolia home overlooking Salmon Bay, Phil Andrews props open his computer and scrolls through images captured by a neighborhood-wide security network.

One photo appears of a person’s back as they stroll down the tree-lined street, and another of a black convertible. The surveillance system, made by Atlanta-based Flock Safety, acts as an all-in-one private investigator equipped with artificial intelligence (AI). The system uses computer vision and machine learning to digitize and categorize images of license plates, the color, make and model of vehicles, as well as how many times a car has entered the neighborhood in a 30-day period.

The A.I. Age | This 12-month series of stories explores the social and economic questions arising from the fast-spreading uses of artificial intelligence. The series is funded with the help of the Harvard-MIT Ethics and Governance of AI Initiative. Seattle Times editors and reporters operate independently of our funders and maintain editorial control over the coverage.

A Magnolia resident for five years, Andrews said he’s seen an uptick in neighborhood disruptions near the secluded waterfront community of dead-end streets called Land’s End. He noted a break-in, package theft and people meandering through the neighborhood who appeared “high as a kite.”

“Seattle’s changed,” said Andrews, lamenting. “It wasn’t like this 15 years ago when [my wife and I] moved here.”

Flock Safety has proved popular throughout the city: Magnolia is one of 10 neighborhoods in the Seattle area using the system, but the company would not disclose the other locations.

A single solar-powered camera is triggered not only by cars, but by pedestrians, bicyclists and animals, part of a private security system by Flock Safety that monitors a road into a Magnolia neighborhood in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
A single solar-powered camera is triggered not only by cars, but by pedestrians, bicyclists and animals, part of a private security system by Flock Safety that monitors a road into a Magnolia neighborhood in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The AI security camera in Land’s End is part of a larger trend of increased surveillance in a time when technology has become cheaper and more effective. AI cameras such as Flock Safety that detect objects and automatically read license plates eliminate the time-consuming need for human analysis, in turn creating digitally gated communities — especially in wealthier areas — where residents can observe who enters and leaves their neighborhood from anywhere with an internet connection.

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While studies show that security cameras can prevent crime when used in conjunction with other deterrents, such as increased lighting, some researchers say AI surveillance systems exacerbate users’ inherent biases and impact people who are disproportionately policed, such as people of color and those experiencing homelessness.

“Your biases are going to determine who’s suspicious, who should be in the community and shouldn’t be there,” said Bryce Peterson, principal research associate at the D.C.-based nonprofit Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center.

While Flock Safety’s business model revolves around providing evidence for law enforcement to solve crimes, even the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has wrestled with the morality of collecting footage gleaned from private security systems.

Public outrage following SPD’s purchase of two drones in 2012 led then-Mayor Mike McGinn to cancel the unmanned aerial-vehicle program before it began. The next year, concerned residents and civil-rights activists urged city leaders to regulate surveillance systems after the Police Department deployed a wireless mesh network, and 30 cameras designed to enhance port security along Seattle’s waterfront.

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Regarding Flock Safety, Police Department emails from August 2018 to August 2019 obtained through a public-records request showed company representatives contacted the department in May to ensure police had access to footage from the Magnolia camera. In response, community-policing team officer Chad McLaughlin requested footage only be sent to the department when there was suspicious activity.

“I appreciate that you would like us to have access to the footage, but this has caused major issues in the past,” McLaughlin wrote. “Seattle doesn’t seem to like the Police monitoring any sort of surveillance systems.”

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What is Flock Safety?

At the entrance of Andrews’ neighborhood on the northern edges of Magnolia, a red-and-white sign informs visitors that the area is under 24/7 video surveillance. Affixed to a towering pole a few feet away, the Flock Safety camera — a small black box resembling a bulky graphing calculator — sits under large solar panels. A nearby sign that reads “local access only” does not restrict access but warns people the neighborhood is a series of dead-end roads.

A surveillance sign gives notice to those entering a dead-end section of Magnolia in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
A surveillance sign gives notice to those entering a dead-end section of Magnolia in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

While residents had stationed individual cameras outside of their homes, Andrews was in search of an affordable solution that would deter potential thieves from entering the neighborhood in the first place.

Andrews found Flock Safety online and the company promised the sense of security he was seeking for a one-time payment of $1,500.

There was widespread buy-in, so much so that within one day of soliciting payment, Andrews said half of the about 70 homeowners sent him money. He shredded checks from an additional 15 neighbors in the following days when he’d raised more than he needed.

“That shows that people are concerned about safety and like the peace of mind of it,” Andrews said.

Andrews, the administrator of the neighborhood’s Flock Safety system, allows any neighbor to access the online portal. Users can search for an object in question, like a vehicle, bicycle, animal or person. The system spits out any footage that matches the description and how often the object may have appeared. A safe-list feature in the portal allows homeowners to omit their license plates so their vehicles are excluded from searches.

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The footage is accessible for 30 days and could be shared with law enforcement if the neighborhood chooses to do so.

Phil Andrews demonstrates the Flock Safety security system on his laptop. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
Phil Andrews demonstrates the Flock Safety security system on his laptop. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

Launched in 2017, Flock Safety was created by co-founder and CEO Garrett Langley, an electrical engineer who wanted to solve petty crime in his neighborhood near Atlanta. His research revealed that most property crimes go unsolved, and he suspected individual home security cameras weren’t helping. He conducted an informal poll of police stations and found law enforcement needed more evidence to solve petty crimes: namely, license plates.

“Our problem is that as a community we’re too focused on ourselves,” said Langley. “If we actually banded together and procured a solution that protected the whole community, perhaps we could make an impact.”

Langley and co-founder Matt Feury went from soldering circuit boards at a dining-room table to the Flock Safety system now being used in more than 300 cities around the country.

Langley said the product immediately saw success when the data resulted in a first arrest in DeKalb County, Georgia.

Since its installation in Magnolia last winter, Andrews said the system has already yielded evidence. A fellow neighbor’s home security camera captured a person jumping out of a car and grabbing a package from a resident’s property in March, but the footage wasn’t detailed enough to read the license plate.

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The neighbors logged in to Flock Safety and within minutes they retrieved a still image of the suspected car’s license plate. It also revealed that the car had visited the area at 2 a.m. twice that month, Andrews said. He’s uncertain if SPD was able to solve the crime. While Seattle police spokesperson Sean Whitcomb confirmed the incident was reported to the police, he said it doesn’t appear the department has pursued an investigation using the footage.

Whitcomb noted that it’s too early to determine whether the rise of AI security cameras has reduced crime in Seattle. While cameras help move investigations forward, they don’t serve as the only piece of evidence to solve a case.

AI technology “can probably do more things than a passive camera,” Whitcomb said. “At the same time, that information is only as good as the investigators who are working on a given case.”

Civil-liberty concerns

Home security is expected to be a nearly $48 billion business by next year, with AI cameras accounting for a small subsection of the growth, said former senior policy analyst Alan McQuinn of nonprofit Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The main clientele for AI security systems are higher-income residents who typically experience less crime than people in poorer neighborhoods, McQuinn said, noting that there’s not enough academic research to show the results of AI security cameras.

“There’s a strong element of security theater where people are investing in cameras because it feels safer and it gives them more peace of mind, and that’s important,” said McQuinn.

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Civil-liberty advocates wonder at what cost the AI systems will increase the sense of safety for the predominantly affluent communities that install the software. Jacqueline Helfgott, criminal-justice professor and director of Seattle University’s Crime & Justice Research Center, said some are concerned AI cameras will give rise to vigilantism and hysteria over certain types of crimes, and potentially be used as tools for discrimination.

A Seattle Times analysis last year that compared 2016 and 2017 SPD crime data and Seattle University’s 2017 public-safety survey found Magnolia residents have a high fear of crime that’s disproportionate to the reality of low crime in the area.

Even so, Helfgott said, “I don’t want to discount people’s fear of crime. If that impacts a person’s quality of life, that can be problematic even if they live in a low-crime area.”

In recent months, Amazon’s smart-doorbell company Ring has come under fire by privacy advocates worried about the company’s sharing of surveillance footage with over 400 law-enforcement agencies around the nation, The Washington Post reported. In an October letter to local, state and federal officials, more than 30 civil-liberty organizations, including nonprofits Fight for the Future and the Center for Human Rights and Privacy, expressed concern that the partnerships allowed law enforcement free rein on footage that could be stored indefinitely and potentially pose a danger to black and brown communities that are more likely to be surveilled.

Langley says Flock Safety automatically deletes surveillance footage after 30 days. Evidence can be saved for longer periods during investigations, but in Langley’s eyes, the biggest mistake security companies make is storing data forever. “[We] are drawing the right line in the sand for the balance between privacy and protection,” Langley said. In Seattle, homeowners voluntarily grant the police access to footage, or SPD can request the data as evidence in criminal investigations.

When convenience meets surveillance: AI at the corner store

The length of time that footage from a private surveillance system is stored by police is dependent upon the severity of the crime and length of the investigation, said SPD’s Whitcomb.

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Although a 2017 Seattle surveillance ordinance requires city departments to obtain City Council approval of technologies currently in use, footage received from private surveillance systems such as Flock Safety are considered evidence collection and not monitored under the law, Whitcomb said. He stressed that the Police Department does not have a business relationship with Flock Safety or Amazon’s Ring.

While Andrews has his own cameras and a fence around his property, he says the AI camera has offered an extra layer of security: “There does seem like there’s been a small downtick in issues.”

Moreover, its presence has helped the neighbors create a greater sense of community. Many of them met for the first time during the meeting last winter where they discussed installing Flock Safety, Andrews said.

“I think everyone felt like they were investing in each other.”