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Holladay Journal

City opts to slow play new surveillance technology

Mar 30, 2023 02:35PM ● By Zak Sonntag

The Holladay City Council decided to pump the breaks on the implementation of new surveillance technology known as Flock camera systems, the latest trend in law enforcement used to track motor vehicles. (City Journals)

The Holladay City Council decided to pump the breaks on the implementation of new surveillance technology known as Flock camera systems, the latest trend in law enforcement used to track motor vehicles.

The cameras create detailed “vehicle fingerprints” which can be referenced against a wider surveillance network when searching for “hot listed” cars, according to UPD Precinct Chief Justin Hoyal, who asked the council to consider adopting the new technology in March.

Holladay representatives, however, opted to slow play the decision, following the lead of Councilmember Paul Fotheringham, District 3, who expressed strong reservations and dug in to demand that practical and ethical questions be answered before the body green lights surveillance. 

“I have basic concerns about expanding this perpetual surveillance as a policy matter. It may be a great tool for criminal investigation, but it comes at a cost,” Fotheringham said.

Fotheringham’s hesitancy echoes concerns raised by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), who argues that Flock represents a dangerous creep toward the “creation of a centralized mass surveillance system of Orwellian scope,” according to Jay Stanley, who authored 2022 research intensive white paper on the topic.

Because Flock captured information is fed to a centralized databased controlled by the private company, the ACLU argues, the potential for abuse is significant—a possibility that is complicated further by the growing use of Flock systems by private enterprises like homeowner association and other neighborhood groups.

Communities can put “virtual gates” around their neighborhoods, while officers can track cars—and by extension, people—outside their own jurisdictions, which has troubling implications for privacy, according to Jay Stanley. 

Councilmember Fotheringham offered hypothetical scenarios to jog the discussion in Holladay.

“Despite the fact that it could be a great crime solving tool, it could also be abused to track stuff like, ‘Where was my girlfriend and was she going someplace I don’t want her to go,’” he said.

“I have confidence that UPD at our precinct would use this tool with discipline, but it’s also the sort of tool that can be abused.”

Holladay residents have tested the waters with public-private surveillance since 2021 with UPD’s inauguration of the “Safe Cam” program, which enabled households and businesses to register private surveillance cameras with a UPD data base and provide footage on a voluntary basis—a program most residents found agreeable.

However, Flock represents a larger—and more centralized—system, which raises concerns for privacy advocates, like Paul Fotheringham, whose public comments in March addressed common themes in technology enhanced enforcement.

“I have concerns about how the decisions will be made about where to place it. For instance, if you put it near the Highland Circle communities because it’s sort of low income and there's a presumption of likely shenanigans there, we could be criticized for that,” Fotheringham said.

“On the other hand, what if you place them into the Walker Lane district. Does that mean the taxpayers are all paying for this sort of additional security apparatus for the rich community? There's all kinds of questions that deserve longer discussion.”

Chief Justin Hoyal said he had in mind eight cameras to be implemented at four strategic locations in the city that were not mentioned by name.

In addition to concerns about the centralization and private administration of camera information, there are questions about scale.

Flock’s goal is to expand to “every city in the United States,” according to Flock CEO Garrett Langley.

That worries privacy advocates—like the ACLU, who says “if the company is able to spread as widely and densely as it hopes, law enforcement will gain the ability to know the detailed movements of virtually any vehicle for as far into the past as that data is held. That would create enormous risks of privacy violations and other abuses and would have significant legal implications as well.”

Councilmember Dan Gibbons, a former judge, asked about legal implications that could impact the City of Holladay.

“I wonder if the data is kept and if it’s subject to a GRAMA request?  Or could it be subpoenaed in a civil case?” Gibbons said. “I'm not sure where I fall on it, but I think it's definitely worth looking into” getting Flock cameras.

The company reports that it only keeps data for 30 days, but there are no laws that require them to honor that policy; nor are there regulations on how they may monetize that data for other purposes, according to Jay Stanley of the ACLU.

Hoyal, while not able to answer all of the council’s questions, is a proponent of the technology and says it makes the work of law enforcement easier, particularly as it applies to stolen vehicles.

“We’ve had several success stories in our precincts. Midvale is recovering occupied stolen cars almost daily,” referring to Holladay’s sister city that’s adopted the technology. 

Mayor Robert Dahle said similar questions were asked with the introduction of police officer body cams, and similar to the way that a system of best practices and policy was ironed out for body cams he believes it will be with Flock cameras as well. 

“It sounds like we need to be more educated on this and have some of these broader discussions before we commit to actually put them into the city. Not only where they're going to go, but just debate the other issues,” Dahle said.

Paul Fotheringham, whose impassioned position sets a high standard of rigor for the city’s future discussions, implored the council to keep a big picture in mind.

“Granted, solving stolen car cases is important, but I think we need to consider the larger societal costs…before we rush head long,” Fotheringham said.