This post was originally posted by the Policing Project on October 23, 3019.
In a new report produced by the Policing Project and released today, the Axon AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board is calling for increased regulation of Automated License Plate Readers by both private and public actors in response to Axon Enterprise Inc.’s announcement of its intention to enter the ALPR market.
Through research compiled by Policing Project staff, the independent Ethics Board examined law enforcement’s use of ALPRs, the resulting threats to civil liberties and racial justice, and the possibility for the rise of pervasive surveillance systems. The Board concluded that the growing availability of low-cost ALPR systems, which would be further propelled by Axon’s entry into the ALPR market, has the potential to increase dramatically law enforcement’s use of the technology. The Board further concluded that the use of ALPRs is precariously unregulated or under-regulated in many jurisdictions.
Axon’s AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board, founded in 2018, operates independently from the company and is made up of experts in the fields of AI, computer science, privacy, law enforcement, civil liberties and public policy. The Policing Project provides staff support to the Board by facilitating its meetings, conducting research, and drafting reports of the Board’s conclusions and recommendations. Policing Project Faculty Director Barry Friedman is an original member of the Board, and this latest report was written under the Board’s direction by Policing Project Executive Director Farhang Heydari and Technology Fellow Emmanuel Mauleon.
In its new report, the Board offered specific recommendations for Axon, as well as the broader ALPR industry, law enforcement, concerned communities and governments. Broadly, these recommendations include:
A call for immediate democratic regulation of ALPRs by communities and governments;
A call for industry-wide self-regulation;
A call for vendors, including Axon, to design their products in ways that facilitate accountability and transparency, include measures to reduce the risk of false positives, and encourage police departments to generate usage reports for public review to raise awareness if there are racial or socio-economic disparities; and
Further study to determine the shortest possible retention periods for ALPR data to address concerns of historical tracking of drivers who have committed no offenses.
Expressing the view of the Board and the Policing Project, Friedman said, “ALPR usage today is pervasive, and growing rapidly. Government, policing agencies and the policing technology industry itself have completely abdicated their responsibilities by not regulating the use of ALPRs. This is a dangerous trend. ALPRs have the potential to threaten everyone’s privacy and worsen racial and socioeconomic disparities in the criminal justice system, especially if used to enforce low-level traffic offenses or generate revenue in the form of fines and fees.”
The Board concluded that although ALPRs can aid law enforcement and efficiently fight crime in important ways, there are serious concerns regarding their unregulated use, including:
The potential to exacerbate enforcement of low-level offenses, including fines and fees enforcement;
Evidence this enforcement falls disproportionately on low-income individuals and communities of color, much of which occurs out of the view of the public and with minimal democratic input or community education;
The possibility of false positives, which can cause police to stop the wrong vehicle or wrong person, potentially leading to dangerous situations; and
The retention of long-term data with identifiable information, which can be used to piece together the private habits and patterns of innocent drivers.
ALPRs are camera systems that record license plates, as well as the time and place of where the license plate was scanned. ALPRs often are capable of recording much more than license plates, including the surrounding scene, and even images of drivers and passengers. ALPRs are used by law enforcement to investigate serious offenses like auto theft, but at times they are also used to enforce civil infractions and collect fines and fees. ALPRs are also used by private actors, such as repossession companies, to track down people with unpaid debts. ALPRs have the potential to be a technologically advanced and efficient crime-fighting tool, and in addition to ethical usage, the board encourages community education to build awareness and understanding of how ALPRs are being deployed in neighborhoods across the country.
Although ALPR technology has been used by law enforcement for over 30 years, its use has expanded rapidly within the last two decades due to advances in technology that have lowered purchasing costs.
The Axon AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board advises Axon around ethical issues relating to the development and deployment of AI-powered policing technologies and works to ensure these technologies ultimately serve the communities where they will be used. The Board released its first report, on face recognition technologies and body cameras, in June 2019.