Oklahoma Quietly Launched a Mass Surveillance Program to Track Uninsured Drivers

Cash-strapped governments are turning to tech that converts cameras into automated license plate readers to penalize uninsured drivers

Photo: marcoventuriniautieri/Getty Images

In March, the president of Rekor Systems Inc., Robert Berman, told investors that 2020 was a “transformative year.” The surveillance tech company’s platform, Rekor One, which converts regular cameras into automated license plate readers (ALPR), had proven alluring to cash-strapped state governments during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Oklahoma, which has seen its tax revenue plummet alongside falling oil prices, announced a statewide rollout of Rekor One in November to track uninsured motorists. “The platform allows for real-time detection of non-compliant vehicles,” Rekor wrote in a press release, “and instant data consolidation into a regularly updating insurance database connected to the state’s enforcement programs.”

Some municipalities, including in Louisiana, Nevada, and Florida have been tracking uninsured motorists with ALPRs, but Oklahoma is the first to implement a statewide system. It will likely not be the last: During an earnings call with investors, Berman said that roughly a half dozen other state governments were “very receptive” to their platform, acknowledging that pandemic-related budget woes likely aided the company’s prospects.

Oklahoma’s rollout of ALPRs to track and bill uninsured motorists is another example of mission creep and expansion in the use of roadway surveillance systems. For years, governments have relied on surveillance companies to extract revenue through tolls and speeding tickets, though largely at the local and municipal level. The civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Atlas of Surveillance documents over 800 bundled purchases of ALPRs by police departments.

The Oklahoma District Attorneys Council launched the Uninsured Vehicle Enforcement Program (UVED) in 2018 in an attempt to clamp down on uninsured drivers. Rekor and the council tout the program as a relative improvement for the uninsured. Instead of receiving a criminal court summons and a $250 fine, uninsured motorists captured by Rekor’s cameras, which are mounted on utility poles and mobile trailers, are sent a violation notice to their home, hit with a $174 citation, and must enroll in an insurance policy through Rekor’s insurance portal. “It’s keeping that person out of the court system,” Rekor Executive Vice President Charles Deglimini told OneZero. “The District Attorney’s Council set this program up in Oklahoma to declaw this tremendous amount of friction that’s caused by uninsured motor vehicle accidents.”

If an individual can’t pay, however, they may face prosecution. “Prosecutorial discretion attends to those who demonstrate acute financial distress,” UVED Program Director/Prosecutor Amanda Arnall Couch said in an email. “The purpose of this program is to help the most vulnerable.”

In 2018, Oklahoma contracted with Sensys Gatso Group to kick off the program with four vehicle mounted ALPRs, according to Tulsa World. The state’s deal with Rekor has expanded the scope of surveillance by installing at least 50 ALPRs across Oklahoma. For every uninsured motorist who later gets coverage through its portal, Rekor rakes in $43 while the rest of the revenue goes toward police and firefighter pension accounts, the Oklahoma Insurance Department and the program itself.

But some advocacy groups are skeptical that surveillance and citations will dramatically decrease the number of uninsured drivers. Priya Sarathy Jones, national policy and campaign director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nonprofit, said that governments should shift their focus. “If insuring drivers is the primary goal, then I think you actually have to focus on the reasons that people aren’t insured,” Sarathy Jones said. “Not just the fact that you aren’t insured. But why aren’t you insured?”

People don’t typically drive uninsured cars by choice, Sarathy Jones said — they often simply can’t afford insurance. Uninsured motorists are often blamed for higher insurance rates, but rates are largely determined by things like credit score, zip code, occupation, lapses in registration, and an individual’s driving record. Studies show that premiums are substantially higher for lower income and Black individuals.

Couch said that the “average rates for UVED enrollees should be the same as, or close to, the general population.” UVED and Rekor partner with Freeway Insurance, an insurance broker company that, according to Consumer Affairs, specializes in “affordable policies for high-risk drivers.” Rekor’s contract with Freeway allows them to audit insurance policies to ensure fairness.

When UVED was first rolled out in 2018, the Oklahoma Policy Institute (OPI), a nonpartisan independent policy think tank, argued that roadside cameras are unlikely to solve the state’s uninsured driver problem. Most uninsured drivers, OPI wrote, “are not opting out because they just don’t want insurance — they don’t have insurance because they can’t afford it. And that’s not because they’re bad drivers and are being charged more because they pose a bigger risk. It’s because your car insurance rate depends on some things that have nothing to do with your driving history… like your credit score.” In Oklahoma, drivers with a clean record but lower credit scores can pay more than individuals with DWIs and higher scores. And Oklahoma, alongside most other states, bars undocumented immigrants from obtaining car insurance.

So far, the UVED program hasn’t achieved its ambitious goals. In 2015, the Insurance Information Institute estimated 10.5% of drivers were uninsured in Oklahoma. By 2019, that figure rose to 13.4%. In 2017, Sensys Gatso Group predicted that it would issue 20,000 notices per month. By the end of its two-year contract, according to Couch, about 90,300 notices had been sent in total. In 2020, Gatso announced that the program was not economically feasible because the overall enrollment rate from uninsured drivers was low. To date, Couch said, the program has enrolled “over 25,000 citizens.”

Why, then, is Rekor knowingly entering into a contract that is unlikely to be particularly profitable? Berman provided a clue to investors, when he said the Rekor One platform was designed to “land and expand” — an aptly colonialist slogan. “It makes sense for us to install infrastructure to serve a larger network when we begin service in an area,” he said.

“We’re a private company,” Deglimini said. “It’s common business practice that you want to expand your success. We know we are successful in the state of Oklahoma and other states have taken notice.” Couch listed tax agencies as one possible future ALPR user. She wrote that Oklahoma state leaders are interested in interlinking the technology across state borders to detect uninsured motorists from neighboring states, too.

“These license plate reader companies are businesses,” Dave Maass, director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation told OneZero. “They have high-powered salespeople who are flying around and wining and dining government officials and telling them about all of the miracles that will happen if they adopt this technology without really sharing any of the risks.” Accordingly, Berman lauded its government affairs team to investors. The company isn’t “afraid to expend resources and time and bandwidth lobbying… there’s nothing wrong with it,” he said.

Rekor’s promotion of revenue generation as a selling point, featured on its website and in its press releases, concerns Maass. “Revenue generation is not an appropriate motivation for this technology,” he said. “What you seem to have here is a mass surveillance program being created to satisfy the insurance industry, and to potentially generate money for the government. And neither of those should be the primary public safety concerns or the public interest concerns when it comes to surveillance technology.” When governments develop a parasitic relationship to residents, writes Jackie Wang in Carceral Capitalism, “policing is not about crime control or public safety but about the regulation of people’s lives — their movements and modes of being in the world.”

Revenue-driven, movement-regulating policing expanded following the Great Recession. With tech companies already capitalizing on Covid-strained budgets, and alarming rates of poverty in the United States, it’s not difficult to imagine the rise of ALPRs as widespread debt collection tools. Some police departments in nearby Texas have been well on their way. In 2015, Texas passed a law allowing police to use ALPRs in their patrol vehicles to track people down who owe court fines.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ALPR company Vigilant Solutions provided some departments with free cameras and charged drivers processing fees as high 25% — on top of court fees — when they were pulled over. A BuzzFeed News investigation found that the number of jailed debtors exploded with the arrival of ALPR-assisted debt farming. Both enforcement costs and revenue from fines increased.

Some legislators have pushed back against statewide ALPR surveillance, often citing privacy concerns. In 2015, former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal vetoed a plan that would have authorized the creation of a statewide, ALPR-enforced uninsured motorist identification pilot program. He argued that the law posed a fundamental risk to personal privacy for “law abiding citizens.” Some state laws limit data retention for ALPRs, including in North Carolina, Maine, Arkansas, California, Montana, Tennessee, and Utah. Oklahoma’s statute sets no such limit.

Meanwhile, other states are testing the waters. This year, Texas, Tennessee, and Florida introduced legislation that would require statewide ALPR-assisted insurance enforcement programs. In February, Rekor announced a pilot program at three national parks in North Dakota. A recent New York state bill would prohibit individuals and businesses from using ALPR data, but expands state power by outlining ALPR surveillance as a viable tool for identifying parking and traffic violations, violations of registration requirements, and violations of inspection requirements.

Privacy-oriented arguments often distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable data collection. Under this framework, the surveillance of “criminals” is legitimized. But as prison abolitionists have long argued, the logic of crime and punishment, and of revenue-driven policing, disproportionately impacts poor Black and brown people. Groups like the Stop LAPD Spying Coalition reject the innocent/criminal binary, arguing instead for the abolition of surveillance systems entirely. Berman, for his part, told investors the future looks bright for Rekor.

“It’s going to be a good year,” he said. “The sky is the limit with this company, and I couldn’t feel any better [about] where we are with it.”

Writer, Researcher, Sleuth|Armenian American| @thenation @truthout @slate | She/They | Questioning Everything| Tech, Science, Power,

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