Axon Ethics Board Pulls Plug On Facial Recognition Tech Being Added To Its Body Cameras

from the yes,-I-can't-believe-I'm-seeing-'axon'-and-'ethics-board' dept

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.

Filed Under: body cameras, ethics, ethics board, facial recognition, police
Companies: axon, taser


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jul 2019 @ 8:29pm

    The real key is the phrase "on our body cameras"

    They still have contracts to retrieve and store all of the footage captured by these cameras. They can still go through all that raw footage and practice their facial recognition all they want. Their not including the tech on the cameras themselves is not a promise not to do facial recognition on the footage they have or will have in the future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Jul 2019 @ 10:01pm

    Bet it's about practicality, not ethics

    We know that even the "good" quality facial recognition used by law enforcement in other areas has unacceptably high error rates. My guess is that this isn't about ethics. That's just a cover for internal politics turning against it. Maybe their internal tests found that trying to do facial recognition with body cameras was too difficult/unreliable to reach even the low bar facial recognition has enjoyed elsewhere, so they decided to bow out rather than release something so broken that they'd lose business over it (or see legislation passed imposing minimum quality standards). Regulation has been slow to come, but if they made a big enough mess that regulation became politically popular, the resulting regulations would probably set a higher standard than they care to meet. That would explain their "at this time" qualifier. They're hoping they can get it working well enough to let them reverse this decision.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jul 2019 @ 3:33am

    Axon may just be waiting for the legislative dust to settle a bit before it moves forward with this bodycam enhancement.

    Or more likely widespread roll out of 5G, so they can give those cameras an always online connectivity..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 4 Jul 2019 @ 9:05am

    Or more likely, they realized that it's a waste of money since the cameras are never turned on to begin with.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    brad (profile), 5 Jul 2019 @ 7:55am

    It's just not ready to roll out yet

    They probably haven't finished the feature, and have a competitor about to roll out their own, and wanted to head them off PR wise. As someone earlier noted it's not going to be "on the camera" because facial recognition still requires heavy duty hardware. It'll be part of their cloud services, I'm sure for extra money, and you'll hear about how "unethical" they find it right up until the release, where they talk about how they finally figured out how to do it "ethically" by holding back some random little feature that could have made it theoretically worse (or that their competitors have and they don't).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 5 Jul 2019 @ 1:11pm

    "Axon actually has an ethics board"

    Which, of course, doesn't mean they are an ethical company. My question for them is, how many false positives are acceptable to you?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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