Homeowners Upset After HOA Installs License Plate Readers

Brian Davidson has lived in the Bedford Stonecourt HOA for 17 years.

"It's a very comfortable and safe neighborhood and we have almost no crime," he said.

Davidson thought last month's HOA board meeting would be business as usual.

But during that meeting, he and his neighbors were informed that license plate readers would be installed.

"Our HOA has installed big brother into the front yard," he said. "They're telling us these are normal cameras. These aren't just normal cameras."

The HOA hired the tech company Flock to provide these cameras.

The cameras read license plates when someone enters or exits the community, and that information is then stored in a database.

Board members with access can search by time of day, license plate, vehicle type or vehicle color.

"They need to take these cameras out," said Davidson. "It's a violation of our privacy."

He said he's among several residents who take extreme issue with the license plate readers.

"Once you capture that in and out information, that's a tag, that's like badging in and out at work. I'm not at work I'm at home. I paid for the privilege to live here," said Davidson.

Ryan Coleman, who also lives in the community, said he and his neighbors didn't even vote on these cameras or the data being stored. 

"Comings and goings and the time of day and who we go with, it's none of their business," said Coleman.

But according to the HOA, board members will not conduct any spying activities.

The law firm representing the HOA tells NBC 5 the license plate readers are more cost effective, and the purpose of the new camera system is the same as the old camera system: to identify the vehicle responsible if there is damage to the entry or exit gates.

But Davidson said the HOA's statement contradicts the handout that they issued to residents, which says the company will install cameras that "track cars and read license plates" at the ingress and egress points of the community. 

Dave Maass, a researcher at the non-profit digital rights group "Electronic Frontier Foundation" calls the readers "the nosy neighbor on steroids."

"Automated license plate readers are a form of mass surveillance," he said.

Maass said he thinks it's bizarre that an HOA would replace its old cameras with license plate reading cameras if its only intention was to monitor gate damage.

"It could show how often you're coming into the neighborhood and when you're leaving the neighborhood, and who you're visitors are and who they're not, when they're coming and when they're going. What if I don't want people to know my girlfriend was over late at night," he said.

Maass said there's also a potential security risk if this type of data gets into the wrong hands.

"Unless you have very rigorous controls in place to ensure that every time someone searches the system that its actually monitored and audited, you're really opening up the potential for abuse," he explained.

According to the HOA, all data is securely stored with state of the art encryption, and the HOA maintains that it will not track individual's vehicles that enter and exit the property.

Davidson, who has an IT background, said he isn't buying it.

"This isn't about safety and security. It's about privacy and having someone looking over your shoulder like big brother," he said. "It feels like I'm being spied upon."

The company that provided the cameras, Flock, told NBC 5 that all of the footage and data from the cameras is automatically deleted after 30 days.

The company said residents who are uncomfortable with this system can opt out, so that when they drive in, the footage will automatically delete.

Nonetheless, Davidson said he's currently working with other residents to petition the removal of these cameras.

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