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Axon Brings License Plate Recognition Technology, and Self-Regulation, To Police Dash Cameras

Alongside its announcement about adding ALPR to its cameras, Axon’s independent ethics board issued a report calling for government and industry regulation of the technology.

Axon, a key manufacturer of body and dashboard cameras for law enforcement agencies as well as the Taser, announced on Wednesday that it will incorporate automated license plate recognition (ALPR) into its next generation of dash cameras.

Accompanying the announcement was an unusual action by a major security technology company: a critical report issued by its independent AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board, which the company created last year. In the report issued Wednesday, the ethics board advocated for greater regulation of ALPR technology, going on to acknowledge its usefulness in public safety while pointing out concerns around its unregulated use.

The board, which appears to be housed at the New York University Policing Project, said that the technology has the potential to “exacerbate enforcement of low-level offenses” and runs the risk of “false positives and long-term tracking of innocent drivers.” In addition, the report found that there is little public information about how police departments actually use ALPR data, making it difficult to measure the potential pros and cons of Axon’s entry into the market, TechCrunch reported.

Some of the board’s recommendations included immediate self-regulation by vendors, including Axon, and law enforcement. In practice, this recommendation means design modifications to improve transparency, limiting ALPR use to prosecute low-level offenses, and offering opportunities for the public to weigh in on ALPR use in their communities.

In addition, the report called for federal, state and local governments to step in and develop statutes for ALPR technology that would make its use by police more transparent.

Barry Friedman, a NYU law professor and a member of the ethics board, said in a statement that the unregulated use of ALPR has made millions of people subject to surveillance by law enforcement.

“The danger to our basic civil rights is only increasing as the technology is becoming more common,” Friedman said. “It is incumbent on companies like Axon to ensure that ALPRs serve the communities who are subject to ALPR usage. This includes guardrails to ensure their use does not compromise civil liberties or worsen existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in the criminal justice system.”

For its part, Axon said in a press release that it plans to work with the board, public safety leaders and “diverse community leaders” to develop a framework for law enforcement agencies to deploy the technology. That framework will be consistent with the recommendations put forth by the board, Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith said.

“We embrace that we have an ethical obligation to develop this technology thoughtfully and bring new privacy safeguards to the industry,” Smith said. “While building ALPR, we'll be addressing items such as data retention and data ownership, creating an ethical framework to help prevent misuse of the technology."

In response to the board’s recommendations regarding data storage, Smith added that the company has never sold public safety data and has no plans to do so.

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