Automated License Plate Readers (ALPRs)—a mass surveillance technology that allows law enforcement to record the location and travel patterns of nearly every driver on the road—are poorly regulated, threaten privacy, and worsen the racial and economic inequalities already ingrained in our justice system.
Last week, the AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board at Axon, a tech company best known for popularizing body-worn cameras and the Taser, released a damning report concerning the commercial sale of ALPRs. The board, whose purpose is to “help guide and advise the company on ethical issues,” concluded that while it sees the potential value of ALPRs, their current role in society is too broad and problematic. The sheer amount of information that ALPRs gather and store was also a concern for the ethics board—particularly when privately collected data is often for sale to whoever wants to buy it.
ALPR systems include cameras that can be mounted on vehicles like police patrol cars or private tow trucks, or on stationary locations such as streetlights or overpasses. These cameras capture every license plate that passes and index them based on time, date, and location. A police officer can search ALPR databases to learn where a vehicle was in the past or even get real-time alerts when a driver passes by an ALPR camera. Research by EFF, MuckRock, and others have found that even small police departments are able to collect millions of plate scans a year, and often agencies are sharing this data with hundreds of other agencies across the country. Private companies also use ALPR and sell their data to police, financial lenders, insurance companies, private investigators, and debt collectors.
The Axon AI Board report reads, “Law enforcement and private actors vacuum up plate data across the country creating databases of billions of scans, too often available to anyone willing to pay.” When considering who would bear the brunt of ALPR’s privacy implications, the Board also expresses concerns that ALPRs will increase the already disproportionate amount of surveillance on vulnerable and over-policed populations.
We agree with the Ethics Board that ALPRs pose a threat to privacy and civil liberties. EFF has long argued against the implementation of ALPRs, as they are used to create mass surveillance systems that gobble up information that can be used to track drivers as they go about their daily activities. And we’ve argued in the courts that police searches of ALPR databases without a warrant violate the Fourth Amendment.
The Board’s recommendation comes months after it called for vendors to refrain from selling face recognition technology to police, and it reaches many of the same conclusions as the California Legislature, which ordered the California State Auditor to launch a statewide investigation into this technology earlier this summer.
The board recommends Axon call for regulation of the technology, for police departments to create thoughtful policies that govern the use of the technology, and that Axon and other vendors consider the uses and misuses of this technology when developing and marketing further iterations. Other vendors of police tech should listen to a member of their own ranks. ALPRs are a threat to privacy of everyone who encounters them and creators and vendors of police tech should learn from Axon’s Ethics Board.
EFF’s Technology Policy Director Jeremy Gillula, sits on Axon’s Ethics Board in his personal capacity. He has recused himself from writing or reviewing this blog and his participation on the board should not be attributed to EFF.