Neighborhood security cameras sacrifice privacy to solve crimes

Homeowners' associations are investing in security cameras to monitor residential streets.

Megan Wollerton Former Senior Writer/Editor
4 min read
Flock Safety

"I would say every neighborhood we talk to brings up privacy and we have yet to talk to a neighborhood that walked away because of privacy. And the reason why is since we're so focused on neighborhoods, we can solve the privacy problem with technology."

That's Garrett Langley, the co-founder and CEO of Flock Safety -- an Atlanta, Georgia-based company that sells its solar-, battery- and LTE-powered outdoor security camera exclusively to HOAs and other neighborhood groups. The startup, which now has cameras in 13 US states, installs its camera, usually several throughout a neighborhood, and aside from the occasional hardware support issue, hands control over to each subdivision to manage its video footage and work with law enforcement when a crime occurs. 

Flock on Tuesday announced it's installing 19 cameras in Country Club Vista, a large neighborhood in Richmond, California, with 645 homes. It's also installing eight cameras in the Heritage Heights neighborhood in Fremont, California. Subdivisions in Cupertino and San Jose are following soon after with Flock camera setups of their own. 

Unlike Ring, Nest, August and many other retail outdoor cameras and video doorbells, Flock Safety's camera can "see" and save license plate information. Its software allows for targeted searches like "red SUVs" during a specific timeframe, too.

Langley told me he wanted to develop a camera that would work in neighborhood entrances and streets where power and internet aren't always available. He also wanted something with the license-plate-tracking abilities of pricier products, like the Vigilant Solutions cameras police use. 

"Today less than five percent of neighborhoods across the US have a security system or cameras in place and it's largely because of cost, not desire," Langley added. 

Still, Flock cameras aren't cheap. While there's no initial cost, Flock charges $1,500 per camera per year for the initial installation and any ongoing maintenance needs. But given that a single Vigilant camera can cost upward of $40,000, Flock's system is kind of a steal. 

Even so, an increasing number of DIY cameras and software algorithms offer advanced analytics. $300 indoor camera Lighthouse has a searching function via text or voice, so you can type or say, "Show me footage of the cat," and the camera should oblige. IC Realtime's Ella search engine offers similar capabilities, but it's the software IC Realtime sells, not a dedicated camera. Buy the Ella service, apply it to your existing security cameras, or so IC Realtime claims, and search "school bus" or "blue car" to get back only the video clips you want, starting at $7 per month. 

Your typical HD security camera, even more sophisticated models with facial recognition, can't ID license plates -- and neither can Lighthouse or Ella. That sets Flock apart from potential competitors in the consumer realm (right now, at least). But what about privacy?

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I can install an outdoor security camera or video doorbell at home without getting anyone's approval (something to be aware of if you live in close proximity to your neighbors), but your HOA doesn't need your go-ahead to install Flock's system, either. It's important to note that Flock is hardly the first company to install cameras in a neighborhood. An apartment complex I used to live in had cameras in and around its club house; I suspect plenty of others around the country do too. 

But that doesn't mean you're out of luck if you have privacy concerns. Langley said Flock does three things to protect privacy -- it deletes footage on a 30-day rolling basis, residents can't look at the footage unless there's a police report and individuals can register their vehicles so that any footage of their license plate or them driving is automatically deleted. That also means there might not be any footage if their car is stolen or experiences a break-in. 

Joseph Narvaez, the Security Chair for the Country Club Vista HOA, told me privacy was a primary concern among residents: "What was more concerning [than privacy] was the amount of crime that was going up in the neighborhood: package theft, reckless driving, burglaries -- and nothing to provide the local police department to go off of -- other than people's own security stuff. But they're not high-tech enough where they can capture license plates."

According to 2016 FBI crime statistics, only 18 percent of the property crimes reported to police were cleared. That clearance rate goes down to just 13 percent for both burglary and motor vehicle theft. Considering that this type of crime is a concern throughout the country, Flock Safety might be on to something, particularly its ability to ID license plates. 

As a resident of a neighborhood association, you're potentially sacrificing some privacy to keep the area more secure -- but it might just be worth it.

Watch this: Nest Hello video doorbell: Smarter than your average buzzer