One of the major players in cop tech is bowing out of the facial recognition race. As Hayley Tsukayama reports for the EFF, Axon (formerly Taser) has decided there are far too many ethical and practical concerns to move forward with adding facial recognition tech to its popular bodycams.
Axon actually has an ethics board — something that certainly would have been welcome back in its Taser sales days. Perhaps having a few ethical discussions would have prevented dead Americans from being awarded postmortem declarations of “excited delirium,” thus keeping law enforcement officers from being held accountable for killing people when they were only supposed to be arresting them.
The Axon ethics board has arrived at the following conclusion concerning facial recognition software:
Current face matching technology raises serious ethical concerns. In addition, there are technological limitations to using this technology on body cameras. Consistent with the board’s recommendation, Axon will not be commercializing face matching products on our body cameras…
There’s a caveat:
… at this time.
Facial recognition is tabled. But it’s not completely off the table. Axon can revisit this at any time and decide the ethical concerns are outweighed by public/officer safety and insert this software into the body cameras it sells as loss leaders to law enforcement.
Color me skeptical, but as great as this sounds (at this time…), Axon may just be waiting for the legislative dust to settle a bit before it moves forward with this bodycam enhancement. San Francisco recently banned the use of facial recognition tech by law enforcement and recent government hearings involving other players in the crowded field haven’t exactly created a receptive atmosphere for unproven surveillance tech more known for screwing up than catching criminals.
Whichever way the wind shifts, Axon is ready. It already deploys a form of facial recognition to redact bodycam footage for public release.
To date, Axon’s work on face recognition has revolved around detecting, tracking and re-identifying faces in videos for the purpose of blurring out or redacting those faces prior to public release, in service of protecting people’s privacy rights. “Re-identification” refers to the automated process of finding all the re-occurrences of a person’s face in a single video. These algorithms do not attempt to match the identity of the individual to a database, only to identify video frames that are likely to include faces so that they can be redacted.
While everything is sorted out, Axon will continue to solidify its lead in law enforcement adoption. Axon’s business model is smart, even if it’s not particularly new. Cash-strapped agencies are given cameras for next to nothing, but are tied into lucrative data/access contracts for years, allowing Axon to recoup the hardware costs with licensing and storage fees.
There’s nothing wrong with the way Axon handles its camera sales. It’s just something cities need to be aware of. Failure to live up to their end of the contract could see a city’s credit rating take a hit if it decides it would rather use another vendor.
This declaration is Axon setting the standard for the industry. As the industry leader, it can influence the decisions of other companies, taking them out of the game before they can even get on the playing field. Law enforcement agencies insisting on facial recognition tech will be seen as outliers and the companies willing to sell to them will appear to be operating unethically. It’s a smart move by Axon. I guess we should all enjoy the unintended side effects of Axon’s anti-facial recognition declaration while we can.
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