Rise of the digital neighborhood watch

Old-school video cameras have long watched over stores and gas stations. Now, a new wave of technology, once too expensive and complex to be used by anyone but the police, is making its way into mom-and-pop shops, front porches and residential streets.

  • Video cameras that flag unusual movements and recognize faces are being stuffed into popular “smart” doorbells that constantly send footage to the cloud.
  • AI-powered “video analytics” can identify specific actions like smoking, and search thousands of hours of archived footage for one person. It’s popping up in public schools, like in Broward County, Fla., which includes Parkland.
  • License-plate readers are now guarding the entrances of wealthy neighborhoods, tracking every vehicle that passes and automatically flagging blacklisted cars.

Forget doorbell cams — some Denver-area neighborhoods are now equipping their streets with cameras that will photograph your car and scan your license plate. Such license plate readers stand ever vigilant in 10 neighborhoods in Denver, Lone Tree, Sheridan and Aurora, according to Flock Safety, the company that sells them.

Images of the vehicle are then uploaded to the company’s Amazon Web Services cloud server and the data collected from the image becomes part of a searchable database. The HOA members with access can then search the database by time or vehicle description. They can also give police access to the footage if a crime is reported

Companies like Flock Safety charge about $2,000 a year for the installation, maintenance and data storage for each solar-powered camera. Most customers are homeowner associations or neighborhood groups that pay for the cameras collectively.

Why it’s hot:

Because peoples’ perceptions of crime often don’t align with reality, crime rates have dropped precipitously since the 1990s. Crime is often based more on media representations and anecdotal evidence than statistics. The growth of private security technology like license plate readers seems inevitable, showing that people are still willing to trade safety for privacy—for now.