What Happens When Landlords Can Get Cheap Surveillance Software?

“Cheap surveillance software is changing how landlords manage their tenants and what laws police can enforce,” reports Slate.

For example, there’s a private company contracting with property managers that says they now have 475 security cameras in place and can sometimes scan more than 1.5 million license plates in a week. (According to Clayton Burnett, Watchstore Security’s director of “innovation and new technology”.)

Burnett’s company regularly hands over location data to police, he says, as evidence for cases large and small. But that investigative firepower also comes in handy for more routine landlord-tenant affairs. They’ve investigated tree trimmers charging for a day of work they didn’t do and caught people dumping trash on private property. Sometimes, he says, a tenant will claim her car was hit in the building’s parking lot and ask for free rent. His company can search for her plate and see that one day, she left the lot with her bumper intact and then came back later with a dent in it. Probably once a week, Burnett says, Watchtower uses it to prove that a tenant has “a buddy crashing on their couch,” violating their lease. “Normally, there’s some limit to how long they can stay, like five days,” he says, “and we can prove they’re going over that.” One search, and they have proof that that buddy has been coming over every night for a month.

I was wondering how tenants felt about this, and I asked Burnett whether anyone had ever complained about the license plate readers. “No,” he said with a laugh. “I’d say they probably don’t know about it….”

[A]s the technology has matured, it’s gotten in the hands of organizations that, five years ago, would never have been able to consider it. Small-town police departments can suddenly afford to conduct surveillance at a massive scale. Neighborhood homeowners associations and property managers are buying up cameras by the dozen. And in many jurisdictions, cheap automatic license plate reader (ALPR) cameras are creeping into neighborhoods — with almost nothing restricting how they’re used besides the surveiller’s own discretion….

If you know that a bald guy in a gray Toyota illegally dumped trash in your lawn, the police won’t try to track him down. But if they have the plate, enforcing lower-level crime becomes much easier. Several of the property managers and homeowners associations I spoke to emphasized that this is one of the main benefits of their ALPR systems. Along with burglaries, they’re mostly concerned about people breaking into cars to steal personal belongings; police wouldn’t investigate that before, but now homeowners associations can do the investigation for them and hand over the evidence. As Burnett put it, “[Police] are not going to be able to investigate [a small crime] unless we hand it to them on a silver platter. Which we’ve done plenty of times.”
The article points out that today’s software can detect dents on cars and watch for specific bumper stickers (or Lyft tags) — and often the software can be retrofitted to existing traffic cameras. A contractor working with police in one Pennsylvania county says they’ve now “virtually gated” an entire 20,000-person town south of Pittsburgh. “Any way you can come in and out, you’re on camera.”

A senior investigative researcher at the EFF points out that “Now a cop can look up your license plate and see where you’ve been for the past two years.”

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