IE 11 Not Supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Vehicle Surveillance Prompts Privacy Concerns in Wichita, Kan.

The license plate reading system that is placed throughout the city at undisclosed locations has helped find kidnapped children, arrest murder suspects and recover stolen vehicles. But it comes at a cost to privacy.

Wichita, Kan.
(TNS) — Where are you going, where have you been — and where are you right now?

If the answer is Wichita, and you got there by motor vehicle, it's likely the Wichita Police Department already knows. Or it can find out with a reasonable degree of certainty using its Flock Safety license plate reader surveillance system, a high-powered database that has helped Wichita police rescue kidnapped children, arrest murder suspects and recover stolen vehicles.

But the power of Flock — which has been used by Wichita police since 2020 — comes with privacy concerns.

It allows the Wichita Police Department to secretly and indiscriminately track tens of thousands of drivers throughout the city and share the data with 93 other law enforcement agencies, including out-of-state and federal agencies.

No one outside law enforcement is allowed to know where the cameras are set up or to see the surveillance data.

Once the surveillance data is shared, Wichita police officials have no control over how those outside agencies use it and no way to flag unlawful searches of its license plate reader database.

Recently, an officer in the nearby Kechi Police Department tapped Wichita's surveillance system to stalk his estranged wife, Wichita police allege. The illicit search went unnoticed until she complained she was being tracked.

Wichita police said they arrested Kechi Lt. Victor Heiar and revoked his entire department's access to the city's Flock camera database within minutes of discovering the unlawful search. Heiar has been charged with a computer crime and stalking, both class A misdemeanors.

Now, Wichita police are looking for ways to safeguard the surveillance data while expanding the number of cameras on the streets. The city flew in a Flock executive on Friday to answer questions and give recommendations on how to protect Wichita's data.

"We're looking at tightening up the data," interim Chief Troy Livingston said, including weekly reviews of data requests to see whether they were for legitimate law enforcement purposes. Every request by law enforcement is logged.

Livingston said the Wichita Police Department is also planning to activate a "transparency portal" web page hosted by Flock, as other cities have done, "that provides a real-time look at how the data is shared, as well as success stories and inter-agency agreements."

Flock transparency portals for other police departments provide basic information about departments' data retention, number of cameras, policies on acceptable and prohibited uses and a list of which external organizations have access to the license-plate data. Cities around the country have data retention policies that vary from 3 minutes to years. Wichita stores the data for 30 days before it is deleted.

Wichita's system logs 5,000 to 6,000 searches a month.

"We're reviewing our security and how we manage our data," Livingston said. "We do have some guardrails in place. We want our public safety professionals to have access to as much relevant information as possible, and you've got to have oversight with that if it's not used appropriately."


Josh Thomas, vice president of external affairs at Flock, said Wichita's case is the first time a law enforcement officer has been accused of abusing the Flock surveillance system, which launched in 2017 and is used by 1,300 agencies across the country.

"We've been at this five years, and it's the first time this has ever been reported to us," Thomas said. "We want to make it easy to use but hard to abuse."

Thomas said Flock is working to develop an alert system that flags suspicious requests but has not done so yet.

The surveillance program photographs every vehicle and license plate that passes by cameras scattered across the city, whether the vehicle is suspected of a crime or not. The records are kept on file for 30 days.

Wichita officers must receive training before accessing the database and must log a "legitimate law enforcement purpose" and case number, if it exists, into the system before searching.

Officers in other agencies aren't bound by the same policies or the same laws as Wichita. The Wichita Police Department shares its database with departments throughout Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Ohio and Kentucky. Agencies in Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wisconsin also have access through the Mid-States Organized Crime Information Center. Federal law enforcement throughout the country have access through the FBI.

Out-of-state agencies could use the city's database to enforce laws that don't exist in Wichita, such as abortion bans. Federal agencies could use it for immigration enforcement. Wichita police and Flock said they will not stand in the way.

"That's something you would have to take up with those agencies," Livingston said. "If it's something we don't enforce here, that's on those agencies. But they're not using the data improperly if they're using it for a criminal investigation."

"It's not our job to write the laws or enforce the laws," Thomas said. "Democratically elected governing bodies enact laws. They appoint law enforcement officers to enforce those laws. And our position as a company is whatever is the legal and social responsibility in those cities, that's up to them and their lawmakers. That's not a private company's job to rewrite laws or tell people how to enforce the laws.

"Flock's not going to get involved in deciding which laws to enforce or not," Thomas said. "That's not our position. That's the position of our democratically elected leaders, from our perspective."

Dave Maass, director of investigations at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties and data security organization, said that's one of his biggest concerns about Flock.

"It isn't really about public safety," Maass said. "It's about enforcing the politics of whoever is in power. And people should keep that in mind when it comes to things like license plate readers."

Maass said leaving standards up to police departments poses problems.

"License plate reader databases are often the least watched with the least amount of rules, so it's very ripe for police to abuse them, and you would never even catch them," Maass said. "It's kind of amazing they caught somebody doing this because there are so few safeguards with this system."

Privacy advocates have been raising the alarm about Flock cameras and other license plate readers for years. They say the readers represent one of the most aggressive government overreaches in decades, a mass surveillance program that could threaten the nation's democracy if left unchecked.

While the breach of Wichita's database is the first reported instance of a law enforcement officer being accused of abusing Flock, other license plate reader systems have been at the center of controversy for decades.

Gun shows. Gay bars. Mosques. Journalists. Immigrants. A gardening store. Those are a few of the things police have targeted for license plate tracking.

And as states across the nation move to criminalize abortion, Maass said he worries Flock cameras could be used by law enforcement in states where abortion is illegal to target women who travel to Wichita for the medical procedure.

"One of the things to remember about any given surveillance technology is that when people say this is going to help eliminate crimes, those are usually coming from people who get to define what a crime is," Maas said. "And there is disagreement across the country about whether smoking weed or providing abortion services or being an undocumented immigrant or owning an automatic weapon is a crime."

The American Civil Liberties Union has a list of five principles law enforcement agencies should follow to protect the public's privacy:

  • License plate readers may be used by law enforcement agencies only
  • The government must not store data about innocent people for any lengthy period
  • People should be able to find out if plate data of vehicles registered to them are contained in a law enforcement agency's database
  • Law enforcement agencies should not share license plate data with third parties that do not follow proper retention and access principles and should be transparent about with whom they share the data
  • Any entity that uses license plate readers should be required to report its usage publicly on at least an annual basis

Wichita follows the first two principles and it's working to make improvements on the others. But you're not allowed to find out if your vehicle has been tracked, thanks to state law.

The Wichita Police Department, along with other law enforcement special-interest groups, successfully lobbied the state Legislature in March to add an exception to the Kansas Open Records Act that would allow law enforcement agencies across the state to keep the locations of their license plate cameras secret — although many of the solar-powered cameras are clearly visible from the street.

Lt. Casey Slaughter, president of the Kansas Fraternal Order of Police, led the lobbying effort to exclude camera locations from the open records law.

"You don't want criminals driving around trying to avoid the tag readers," Slaughter said. "If they knew where they were and what they looked like, why wouldn't they just drive around the city and avoid them?"

Flock photographs vehicles with covered or removed license plates and can identify them using machine-learning and artificial intelligence based on the make and model of the vehicle. But lack of a license plate could still hamper efforts to tie an individual to a crime.

"If you're planning to do a home invasion or steal a car or do whatever, there's something you can do within a matter of seconds that would prevent you from being captured by a license plate reader," Maass said. "I'm not going to say what it is because I don't want to be quoted giving advice to anyone on how to evade police, but I think it's pretty obvious."


Slaughter, who is also Wichita police's Flock administrator, said he's not surprised the system was abused. But he said events are rare and that the public should trust officers aren't using the surveillance data to track people not suspected of committing crimes.

"One situation of an outside agency one time misusing the Flock system is not shocking to my conscience at all," Slaughter said. "It's just not. And I'm just being real honest. I knew it was going to happen eventually. And it happened."

"At some point, there still has to be trust in the officer," Slaughter said. "And that's why we wear a badge. It's how we testify in court. There has to be trust. If there's not public trust, why are we in this position?"

Put another way: "Spiderman," Slaughter said. "With great power comes great responsibility."

That's why it's important to act swiftly if an officer is caught misusing the database, Livingston said.

"We're going to tighten up supervision on how the data is shared with other agencies," Livingston said. "We're reviewing that, anyway, such as needing assigned supervisors from those agencies to review and approve data requests before we provide that access."

Flock also comes at a cost. Each camera includes a $2,500 yearly subscription fee, which includes the camera, maintenance, user licenses and software support.

The Wichita Police Department received a federal grant to add 50 license plate reader cameras to its fleet of 110 cameras and expects to spend $275,000 annually on the Flock license plate readers until 2026 when the cost is expected to climb to more than $404,000 a year after federal grant money runs out.

©2022 The Wichita Eagle, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.