Police will get AI-powered license plate readers, but ethical concerns remain

A self-initiated ethics report is cautioning the company Axon against the potential misuse of tech that automatically reads license plates.

Rae Hodge Former senior editor
Rae Hodge was a senior editor at CNET. She led CNET's coverage of privacy and cybersecurity tools from July 2019 to January 2023. As a data-driven investigative journalist on the software and services team, she reviewed VPNs, password managers, antivirus software, anti-surveillance methods and ethics in tech. Prior to joining CNET in 2019, Rae spent nearly a decade covering politics and protests for the AP, NPR, the BBC and other local and international outlets.
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Police dashboard cameras are about to get supercharged under Axon. The company formerly known as Taser is planning to roll out AI-powered, dashcam-incorporated automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), which will let police surveil large swathes of license plates automatically, according to a Wednesday press release. The cars are set to be deployed in 12 months, and the company plans to define best practices and consider any ethical issues in the meantime, the release said.

Axon's ALPR-equipped cars will be able to scan three lanes of traffic simultaneously, potentially both front and back license plates, reading and storing all the license plates they come across, according to an accompanying report from Axons' Ethics Board. The ALPR technology will also likely be able to recognize other vehicle characteristics.

"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 a press release. "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."

Noting a study from the Electronic Frontier Foundation that found areas in Oakland, California, with a greater number of black and Latino residents were more likely to be scanned, the ethics report cautioned the company against racial bias. 

"The impact of increased enforcement will not be felt equally across all communities. Typically, communities of color and lower income communities bear the brunt of increased enforcement," the report said.

Other concerns expressed in the report include ALRP's impact on privacy, with a growing database of data collected from mass-surveillance; the use of ALRP in connection with overbroad gang databases or immigration enforcement agencies; and the expanded capabilities of the technology to capture photos of passengers.

The report also notes there have been reported instances of officers holding innocent people at gunpoint because of erroneous ALPR alerts.

Axon's' previous forays into police surveillance technology include a drone program and body cameras (some of which were pulled from use by the NYPD after one exploded). The company didn't specify where the cars might be first rolled out. 

Watch this: Backlash grows for police use of facial recognition (The 3:59, Ep. 562)