Axon Brings License Plate Recognition to Cops' Dash Cams

Photo: Getty

Axon, a manufacturer of Tasers and police body cameras, announced it is developing a police dash camera that can automatically read license plates, as its ethics board simultaneously released a report that warns of the consequences of this technology.

The weapon and technology developer issued a release on Wednesday claiming it is integrating automated license plate recognition (ALPR) into its next dash camera, Axon Fleet 3. Such a system could automatically run plate numbers through a database without requiring officers to enter those numbers manually.

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Law enforcement agencies are already using ALPRs in invasive ways. Last year, Sacramento County officials admitted that the Department of Human Assistance’s welfare fraud investigators use ALPR data to track welfare recipients suspected of fraud. The use and potential abuse of this technology will only accelerate with a major police outfitter like Axon advancing ALPR.

Of course, this capability comes with many ethical concerns and in an effort to prepare for those quandaries—and, likely, to get ahead of the controversy—Axon established an ethical advisory board to assess the implications of the technology it is developing.

In a statement, founder of the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law and Axon ethics board member, Barry Friedman said, “the danger to our basic civil rights is only increasing” as ALPRs become more common.

“If government is going to continue to abdicate its responsibility to regulate this technology appropriately, and we hope it doesn’t, it is incumbent on companies like Axon to ensure that ALPRs serve the communities who are subject to ALPR usage,” Friedman said in the statement. “This includes guardrails to ensure their use does not compromise civil liberties or worsen existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in the criminal justice system.”

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As TechCrunch first pointed out the report issued by Axon’s Policing Technology Ethics Board includes blunt warnings and recommendations about the technology, including:

1) Law enforcement agencies should not acquire or use ALPRs without going through an open, transparent, democratic process, with adequate opportunity for genuinely representative public analysis, input, and objection. To the extent jurisdictions permit ALPR use, they should adopt regulations that govern such use. (This is what we said about face recognition, and it is true as well for ALPRs.)

2) Agencies should not deploy ALPRs without a clear use policy. That policy should be made public and should, at a minimum, address the concerns raised in this report.

3) Vendors, including Axon, should design ALPRs to facilitate transparency about their use, including by incorporating easy ways for agencies to share aggregate and deidentified data. Each agency then should share this data with the community it serves.

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The report also states that Axon and other ALPR vendors “must provide the option to turn off immigration-related alerts from the National Crime Information Center so that jurisdictions that choose not to participate in federal immigration enforcement can do so.”

In the announcement, Axon said it is making its intention to use the technology public now, a year before it is launching the new device, in an effort to engage with civil liberty and public safety organizations and establish best practices.

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Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith said in a statement that the company “recognize[s] that there are legitimate concerns about privacy protections, constitutionality of search and data security issues that need to be addressed.”

Smith also said the company won’t sell public safety data and his company has an “ethical obligation to develop this technology thoughtfully.”

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It is thoughtful for Axon to solicit ethical input for their ALPR systems. However, it also seems likely they are trying to better understand how to respond to whatever backlash comes from building and selling whatever they want, regardless of the consequences.

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About the author

Jennings Brown

Senior editor and reporter at Gizmodo