Oklahoma plans to use Rekor’s AI to track down uninsured drivers, despite discrimination concerns

Rekor, a controversial startup providing license plate-scanning technology, today announced that the state of Oklahoma

Rekor, a controversial startup providing license plate-scanning technology, today announced that the state of Oklahoma will use its software to spot uninsured motorists on the road. As a part of an Oklahoma program (the Uninsured Vehicle Enforcement Diversion Program) that encourages cited uninsured drivers to avoid court appearances by acquiring insurance and paying a $174 fee, Rekor will identify the make, model, and color of vehicles and regularly update the insurance database connected to the state’s various enforcement programs.

Oklahoma’s program, which launched in November 2018, was created after the state ranked number one in the nation for uninsured motorists, with 2016 statistics showing that one out of four drivers in Oklahoma were operating vehicles without insurance. But while Oklahoma motorists must by law have coverage, it’s not a realistic proposition for some residents. Studies have found evidence of structural racism in auto insurance leading to higher premiums and subsequently higher levels of uninsured driving among Black people, for instance.

According to a press release, Rekor, which will receive a $43 processing fee for each auto insurance violation, will deploy technology including cameras to identify and process notices issued to uninsured drivers on the road. (Oklahoma law enforcement will issue “notices to respond” when cars are identified, encouraging owners to get insurance and comply with the law.) Rekor will also provide a web portal to find nonstandard and standard insurance for cars and it says it will retain data — which Oklahoma law prevents from being used for other purposes — for as long as a car is out of compliance.

“The goal of this … program is for all drivers to have at least the minimum required amount of liability insurance,” district attorney for Kay and Noble counties  Brian Hermanson said. “When an uninsured motorist causes a crash, innocent motorists are often forced to pay for repair bills, property damage and hospital bills. The new … program will help change that, and we believe it will also create safer roads for all drivers in Oklahoma.”

Maryland-based Rekor, which made headlines with a home surveillance service that monitors car owners and a collaboration with Mastercard to let restaurants build customer profiles from license plates, trumpets the program as an expansion of its work with law enforcement agencies to provide vehicle recognition services “supporting public safety.” (Rekor’s software is in use by over 69 counties throughout the U.S. and leverages an over 30-state real-time database that collects more than 150 million license plates every month.) But the program could disproportionately impact drivers with lower incomes and few means of paying fees; a Rekor spokesperson says the company is in talks with four other states to implement similar systems.

The average cost of auto insurance in Oklahoma is $1,531 a year (12.6% above the national average) and only 11 states have a lower median household income than Oklahoma ($48,568), according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Insure.com. Three states — California, Massachusetts, and Hawaii — prohibit the use of credit history in auto insurance rating and New York and Michigan prevent carriers from using of education level or occupation in ratings, but Oklahoma offers no such protections.

Rekor says it’s tasked a national broker with ensuring “all” uninsured drivers who visit the online portal are “underwritten fairly.” But the company declined to provide the name of the broker, and mistakes have already been made. KFOR-TV reported that one in twenty drivers flagged as uninsured by the system in 2019 were wrongly designated as violators, in some cases because they’d personally registered vehicles but commercially insured them.

Often, many drivers pay more for auto insurance simply because of their home ZIP code. Research from the Consumer Federation of America points to differences in each region among neighbors living within 100 yards of each other, sometimes as close as across the street or even next door. In each city tested, the higher-priced ZIP code had a lower median income and a higher percentage of nonwhite residents than the neighboring, lower-premium ZIP code.

“When we create this panopticon of vehicle tracking, you create the opportunity to track innocent [and disenfranchised] people in public,” Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said of Rekor in a recent interview with CNET. “It’s far past time for our court systems to catch up and realize that when people are deploying these AI systems in the public space, they are stripping countless bystanders of their privacy.”

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