Axon to add automatic license plate readers to police car systems

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Inside Axon’s spaceship-themed Seattle office. (GeekWire Photo)

Axon, the police tech company formerly known as Taser, will add automatic license plate readers to its cop car dashboards.

The Seattle and Scottsdale, Ariz., based company said Wednesday that the new technology will be integrated into its next generation of in-car video systems.

Axon sought guidance on automatic license plate readers from its AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board — a unique, independent oversight group of AI experts, computer scientists, civil liberties advocates, and public servants — that advises the company.

That board recommended Axon eschew facial recognition technology in its products earlier this year. Axon took the advice, announcing it would not incorporate facial recognition technology into its police body cameras unless issues of bias and accuracy were remedied.

Axon CEO and founder Rick Smith called automatic license plate reader technology, “an important tool for keeping communities safe as it can help apprehend criminals, find missing children, and recover stolen vehicles,” in a 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,” he added. “We embrace that we have an ethical obligation to develop this technology thoughtfully and bring new privacy safeguards to the industry.”

Automatic license plate readers concern privacy advocates. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union filed public records requests in 38 states and Washington D.C. to find out how law enforcement agencies use the technology.

“The documents paint a startling picture of a technology deployed with too few rules that is becoming a tool for mass routine location tracking and surveillance,” the ACLU said in a blog post. “License plate readers can serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose when they alert police to the location of a car associated with a criminal investigation. But such instances account for a tiny fraction of license plate scans, and too many police departments are storing millions of records about innocent drivers.”

Axon will begin deploying the technology a year from now. Over the next 12 months, Axon plans to work with the ethics board to create guidelines for ethical deployment of automatic license plate readers.

The board already recommends law enforcement agencies take ownership of the license plate data that is collected and discourages selling that information commercially.

“We believe the data is owned by public safety agencies and the communities they serve, and should not be resold to private entities whose interests may not be aligned with the public good,” Smith said.

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