Worried about mail theft in their community and surging crime in nearby Minneapolis, residents of a Plymouth neighborhood have installed license plate readers to record all vehicle traffic in their area.

The Heritage Park area in Plymouth is the first neighborhood in Minnesota to contract with Atlanta-based Flock Safety, which provides the license plate readers and stores the collected data to help police solve local crime. It joins thousands of neighborhoods and communities in 38 states that are doing the same.

"It's peace of mind," said Jim Russell, president of the neighborhood association. "We do live in a very safe suburb and a very safe neighborhood. We just don't want our mail stolen and we want these people caught."

License plate reader technology has been around for decades, primarily used by law enforcement. But now, for about $2,000 a year, anyone can install the device.

Garrett Langley, co-founder and CEO of Flock, said his three-year-old company is helping police solve crimes ranging from mail and identity theft to more violent offenses, including kidnapping and murder.

"We didn't invent the license plate reader. We said, what if we could take it to the masses?" Langley said.

He said the product especially appeals to suburban communities — and that Minnesota is an emerging market.

But groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have sounded the alarm about more cameras recording Americans' everyday lives, leading to a not-so-distant future of continuous surveillance.

Flock Safety is just one of several companies selling surveillance to average Americans, said Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst with the ACLU's Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project based in Washington, D.C.

"If I were living in a community considering this product, I would want to think very carefully about my privacy and exactly what information this would be gathering about me and who would have access to it," Stanley said. "Even if my life is the most boring ever and I don't feel like I have anything to hide, do I want to live in a community where other people feel as though they are being monitored all the time and where the potentials for abuse are created?"

Looking for security

Russell, an electrical engineer who has served as neighborhood association president for more than five years, said rising mail theft and a disquieting break-in at a neighbor's house this summer prompted him to look into installing license plate readers.

He was a victim himself, he said. A thief rifled through his mailbox, ripped open a package, stole the printer ink cartridges inside and left the packaging. He and many of his neighbors have been working at home when the thefts occur, and one neighbor called police when she discovered an intruder standing in her kitchen.

As crime surges in Minneapolis, suburban residents want to keep their neighborhoods safe, he said.

"There is a general feeling of needing more security," Russell said. "There is all this talk about defunding the police. We just want to make their jobs a little easier."

Russell said Flock's high quality images and its searchable database are superior to off-the-shelf surveillance cameras or doorbell cams. It costs each homeowner about $50 a year, he said.

Neighbors debated privacy concerns but decided surveillance cameras are already everywhere anyway, Russell said. "Since most homes already have doorbell cameras, we have become a bit desensitized to it," he said.

The cameras in the Plymouth neighborhood have only been working for a month, and so far there's been nothing to report, Russell said.

Capt. Jeff Swiatkiewicz, a patrol officer with the Plymouth police, said officers didn't know about the neighborhood's license plate readers. He said they often get videos from business surveillance and doorbell cameras that become evidence in investigations.

"We would use it as part of the investigation," Swiatkiewicz said.

Built-in privacy securities

A spate of car break-ins in his Atlanta neighborhood prompted Langley to launch Flock three years ago. The neighborhood was repeatedly hit by what Langley called an organized theft ring, but Atlanta police said there was little they could do. That's a common response; more than 80% of property crimes across the country go unsolved, according to FBI statistics.

Langley asked the police what they needed to solve the crimes. License plate numbers, they said.

Langley, an electrical engineer, called an old school friend from Georgia Tech, and together they invented a prototype at his dining room table. The company now has 150 employees and has raised more than $80 million in venture capital. Their cameras are in more than 1,000 communities nationwide, ranging from cities like Wichita and Indianapolis to neighborhoods and shopping centers.

Langley said they've created safeguards to ensure the technology is not misused, such as deleting data after 30 days and limiting access to it. In most cases, he said, "No one has access to the camera until 911 has been called. If you are not willing to call 911 and have a case number, why are you looking at this product? We don't want vigilante policing. We want evidence for police to do their job."

Another built-in safeguard: The cameras record vehicles on a public street including license plate numbers, the model and make, but only police are able to run the plates and get owner information.

Police in Sandy Springs, Ga., used Flock's license plate readers along with Ring Doorbell camera footage to arrest a man suspected of stealing mail from hundreds of people, according to a Fox 5 Atlanta news report.

Langley said that Flock officials have never been called to testify in a criminal court case. That's because their data make up just one piece of evidence that police use to crack cases.

Russell said the neighborhood hopes the cameras don't just solve crimes, but make would-be thieves think twice about targeting their area. Signs have been installed letting motorists know they're being recorded.

"I do think it will be a natural deterrent," he said.

Shannon Prather • 651-925-5037