JOHNS CREEK, Ga. —The Johns Creek City Council is set to decide Sept. 23 whether its police department should enter a memorandum of understanding with Ring and Flock security cameras.
Police Maj. John Clifton briefed the council on the potential benefits of the agreement at a Sept. 9 work session. While council members expressed enthusiasm for the potential public safety benefits, some raised questions about privacy rights.
Ring is a security system that individuals can purchase for their home. Its signature product is the video doorbell, which detects motion when people approach the property and records video footage.
Flock is a safety system for subdivisions. Flock cameras are installed on neighborhood roads to capture still photos of cars and license plates.
The agreement with Ring would allow police officers to access the Neighbors app, which Ring describes as a digital neighborhood watch. Law enforcement users, who would be clearly identified to resident users, could view public posts throughout the city.
Police would not be able to see private footage without making a request that cites a relevant case number and a specific time range and area. Ring would then ask users in that area if they are willing to share footage with law enforcement.
“If we have a crime in a neighborhood, it allows us to see who has Ring cameras in that area,” Clifton said. “It also allows us to reach out to them via the app and ask if they have any video footage that would help us solve the crime … we’d no longer have to go door to door and ask them.”
Police could only see the footage if the user explicitly and voluntarily chose to share it with them. Users could also opt out of all future requests by law enforcement.
“Flock is a little bit different than Ring,” Clifton said. “With Ring, it’s owned 100 percent by the person who has the video, so we can’t get it from them unless they give us permission.”
The council agreed to put the agreement with Ring on the consent agenda. However, there was some debate over the Flock agreement.
Across the city, 17 Flock license plate cameras have been installed by six subdivisions — Ellington, Mabry Park, Medlock Bridge, Prestwick, the Reserve at Autry Mill and the Ridge at Brumbelow. The neighborhoods own the photos captured by these cameras.
“This is done by [homeowner associations] … based on being elected representatives from the neighborhoods,” Clifton said. “There were some questions earlier if 100 percent of the residents in that neighborhood gave permission to put those cameras up, I doubt very seriously that 100 percent of them even know that they’re there.”
With an official agreement, the police would be able to access the images stored by the neighborhood. Permission would be granted by the HOA board, president or designated security lead, Clifton said.
The memorandum of understanding would also enable police to connect the Flock database to national and state hot lists so Flock could alert police if a license plate suspected of being connected with a crime passes one of the cameras.
“Whether it’s a stolen car or a crew, that we get a description of the car and the tag, that’s going in and committing entering autos, it’s going to send that to the zone officer and say that car just came into the subdivision,” Police Chief and Acting City Manager Ed Densmore said. “It’s more proactive than just reactive.”
Though thus far these cameras have only been installed on publicly owned roads where there is no legal expectation of privacy, some council members expressed fears that this technology veers too close for comfort toward a surveillance state.
“It’s almost like stepping outside your house means you have no expectation of privacy,” Councilman John Bradberry said. “That may be the world we live in, but I don’t think we have to further enable that.”
Clifton said Flock has a resident safelist feature. If a resident adds their tag to the safelist, photos of their vehicle will not be released to the police. Councilwoman Stephanie Endres asked city staff to reach out to the HOAs to ensure everything was being done to make residents aware of the cameras and the safelist feature.
“Residents may not know even that they have the cameras,” Endres said. “The Ring was pretty clear; you went directly to the homeowner. With this one, I understand the greater good, but the whole point of individual rights is to protect the individual from the mob.”
During public comment that night, four residents spoke in favor of the MOU with Flock. Another speaker urged the council to do more research into data privacy law and set clear rules for how long the data would be stored and what agencies it could be shared with.