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Axon, formerly Taser, plans to put automatic license plate readers on police dashboards

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It released an ethics report on the tools

Moscow public transport infrastructure Photo by Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS via Getty Images

Axon, the company formerly known as Taser, is entering another controversial surveillance business: the automatic license plate reader industry.

In a report released by its ethics board today, the company said it planned to enter the market and make the tech, called ALPR, available on a “future version” of dashboard cameras already used in police vehicles. Axon provides dashcams under a brand of products called Axon Fleet, and the company told the board that the next generation of its cameras will include the readers.

The cameras will be able to process video of license plates through a laptop in an officer’s car. While some police departments already use readers mounted to their cars, Axon believes that a camera sitting on a dashboard “will enable agencies to deploy ALPRs more broadly than before, potentially across an agency’s entire fleet of cars,” according to the board’s report.

Under “ideal conditions” — based on lighting, distance, and vehicle speed — Axon says its camera “approaches” 100 percent accuracy, but will register a scan if it is 90 percent confident in its accuracy. The board’s report notes that the cameras will likely also be able to recognize vehicle characteristics.

ALPR has been a controversial law enforcement tool. Privacy advocates have questioned the wisdom of giving police the power to closely monitor the movement of vehicles, and errors in a system could be disastrous. Axon, which, along with the Taser, has produced surveillance tools like body cams, will likely have its ALPR tool closely monitored by civil rights groups.

As part of the announcement, the company’s ethics board released recommendations on how ALPR should be regulated. Among other suggestions, the board recommends law enforcement have a clear ALPR policy, that data on their use is shared widely, that ALPR systems are audited, and that cars aren’t stopped solely because of an ALPR hit.

“Without regulatory intervention,” the company’s ethics board writes, “there is a risk that competition will encourage a race-to-the-bottom of more pervasive and more powerful surveillance.”