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Axon to Debut License Plate Reading, After a Year of Input

The company is going to bring automated license plate recognition to its in-car dash cameras. But first, its independent oversight board issued recommendations for the technology to address ethical concerns.

by / October 30, 2019
Axon Fleet 3 dashboard camera Axon

Axon, best known for its body cameras and Taser weapons, is getting into the license plate-reading business.

In a year’s time, the company says it will release capabilities for police cars that use its Axon Fleet 3 dash cameras to automatically scan license plates on the road. The company is announcing the product early because, according to a press release, it wants to first work with stakeholders to try to address the potential ethical concerns of the technology.

To get the ball rolling, the company asked its independent ethical oversight board to put out a report on benefits and concerns of automated license plate recognition (ALPR). The report acknowledged that the tools are very common, especially for collecting tolls, but that Axon’s entrance into the market could hasten their adoption en masse.

Many ALPRs are sold as standalone cameras, but Axon is proposing to pair the technology with cameras that already exist inside police cruisers.

The problem, according to the board, is that information about the technology is scant — it’s hard to say how many ALPRs exist, where they’re used or how effective they are. One estimate puts the global market for ALPR at $1.81 billion and rising.

One thing that’s clear, the oversight board found, was that the technology is largely unregulated.

“ALPR prices already have dropped sharply and will continue to decline, making widespread adoption seemingly inescapable whether Axon enters the market or not,” the report reads. “At the same time, the market is not consolidated and each player is following its own rules. Without regulatory intervention, there is a risk that competition will encourage a race-to-the-bottom of more pervasive and more powerful surveillance.”

The technology can help police investigate crimes as well as find stolen vehicles and kidnapping victims.

There are also several potential issues with the technology. The report cited a 2015 report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that found that in Oakland, Calif., ALPR was used more in minority neighborhoods than white areas. That means widespread adoption could exacerbate socio-economic biases in law enforcement.

“Mobile ALPRs go where officers go,” the report reads. “More officers are deployed to neighborhoods that are perceived to be ‘high crime,’ which tend to be minority and low-income neighborhoods.”

Today, the Axon Fleet makes up only a small portion of the company’s revenue (not counting video storage and software revenue associated with the cameras). That could change if its addition of ALPR technology makes the product more appealing to law enforcement agencies.

The company has already turned to computer vision technology to help public safety officials use the video from its products, including body-worn cameras. Identifying objects in frame, or helping users find things like computer screens and victims’ faces that need to be redacted before the video can be shared, can make it easier for agencies to quickly disseminate footage.

But at the suggestions of its ethical oversight board, the company declined to use that technology for facial recognition — specifically, matching faces to databases to identify people who appear in a video's frame.

The report gave 15 recommendations for law enforcement and ALPR vendors, including urging law enforcement to gather input from citizens and come up with clear policies for how it should be used prior to deployment. Vendors, the report stated, should give agencies the ability to narrow which vehicles the ALPR system sends out alerts for and give users the ability to not generate alerts for immigration enforcement.

"ALPR is an important tool for keeping communities safe as it can help apprehend criminals, find missing children, and recover stolen vehicles," Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith said in the statement. "We do, however, recognize that there are legitimate concerns about privacy protections, constitutionality of search and data security issues that need to be addressed. We embrace that we have an ethical obligation to develop this technology thoughtfully and bring new privacy safeguards to the industry. 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."

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