A police tool that could help officers find missing people and stolen cars takes photos of driver's license plates is coming to Horry County.
A total of 23 license plate readers will be placed throughout the county as part of the Horry County Police Department's partnership with Flock Safety, a company that sells safety operating systems to law enforcement agencies. Nineteen of them are active as of Monday afternoon.
Mikayla Moskov, a spokeswoman for the county police, said the department's purchase of the readers is to compare characters from the license plates to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's National Crime Information Center's database.
"With this new technology, officers on-duty will receive a mobile alert when a vehicle of interest passes an (license plate reader) LPR ," she said in an email to The Sun News. "HCPD is excited about the prospect of these LPRs to further enhance the agency's ability to serve the community and solve cases."
Matthew Guariglia is a policy analyst with Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit focused on defending digital privacy. He said there needs to be a full use policy to address how the technology will be used and what protections are in place.
"The truth is that around the country people not only have very little control over how police departments use technology, they have no control over whether or not police buy this technology at all," he said.
He noted that to counteract that city officials in some areas are adopting surveillance laws that require council members to vote on new tech before departments can buy it and get feedback from the public.
"And so, before the cops even buy the piece of technology, people in the town can scrutinize how the police want to use it," Guariglia said.
Kelly Moore, who is the public information director for Horry County, said she wasn't aware of a council vote specifically for allowing the license plate readers. However, she noted the topic was discussed multiple times at Public Safety Committee meetings.
The readers were included in the county's budget, which was discussed and approved by county council, Moore added.
Moskov said the department used the funds allocated by Horry County Council and grant money aimed to improve policing in the community to buy the cameras, which costs about $2,500 each.
"The same nationwide guidelines that apply to sharing or utilizing other (Criminal Justice Information Services) data and NCIC searches will pertain to information captured by the LPRs," she said.
Moskov said the photos will not be used to catch drivers with expired registration or traffic violations.
Instead, those photos will then be stored in the Flock Safety cloud, which would be used as needed by law enforcement, she added.
The license plate numbers will only stay in the cloud for 30 days, which is not maintained by the department, she said, adding officers will only have access to that information if the plate information matches an item on the NCIC's hot list, which agencies can use to log when a vehicle is associated with criminal activity or a missing person.
And even then, officers must have a specific reason for using the cloud. If they have one, officers will then take note of a sighting just like they would if they had seen the vehicle while patrolling, Moskov added.
Guariglia said law enforcement agencies will claim these cameras are just one of many investigative tools they use, to help them further an investigation they already have a lead on.
"But what we increasingly see with this technology is that a name will pop up on the screen, and police will just go get that person as if as if they are a criminal," he said.
"Tools that are supposed to be used to supplement traditional investigative methods are becoming the entire investigation."
Guariglia is concerned about the use of this tech, saying it has not been "foolproof."
"There have been false identifications," he said. "There are stories across the country of people getting pulled out of their car at gunpoint because the license plate reader misread their license plate."
He pointed out these cameras do have many implications as the number of car service companies increase.
"If you don't know what the last person who used your car could have done with it, there is a chance that you could be hot listed and pulled out of the car at gun point," he added.
Moskov also mentioned the cameras will give officers another tool to work with local agencies.
"Since some public safety partners in the area, including Myrtle Beach Police Department, already employ LPRs of some sort, the addition of these cameras creates a larger network to reduce the ability of stolen vehicles or missing persons to go undetected," she said.
The Myrtle Beach Police Department set up about 800 security cameras in the city as part of a nearly $2.2 million project completed more than five years ago.
Moskov said depending on the success of the cameras, the department may look to add more in the future.
The department declined to disclose the locations of the license plate readers.
But Moore said "they are at primary ingress and egress points around the county."