License-plate readers pose threats to equity and privacy

By Eric Sundquist

Automated license-plate readers (ALPRs) and associated software have become inexpensive go-tos for law enforcement and toll collection. They also raise questions about equity and ethics.

Axon Enterprises, a vendor of law-enforcement cameras and other devices, has set up an ethics board to consider such questions. In a new report, the board states that:

[T]he potential benefits of ALPRs appear real, yet the extent to which these potential benefits are realized is unknown. ALPRs can be used to locate stolen vehicles, identify vehicles of interest with regard to serious crimes, and locate the subjects of Amber or Silver alerts more efficiently and effectively. Police can use stored ALPR data to conduct investigations into a wide variety of crimes.

Yet, it also is clear that ALPRs impose very real costs. ALPR-aided enforcement may exacerbate racial and socio-economic disparities in the criminal system. This is particularly the case when … ALPRs are used to enforce low level traffic offenses or generate revenue in the form of fines and fees. ALPRs can generate false positives that may lead to intrusive and potentially dangerous traffic stops. ALPR systems store data, often for long periods of time, creating historical databases of our activities that for the most part are unregulated, creating serious privacy risks. ALPRs and the data they store can and have been used in ways that chill First Amendment liberties and threaten Fourth Amendment rights.

To lessen the downsides, the board says, “law enforcement agencies must adopt policies and practices that ensure their use of ALPRs is equitable, well-informed, and transparent to
the communities they serve.” To that end, the board offers 15 recommendations—too many to list in this blog post, but summarized on pages 8 and 9 of the report.