Axon: No facial recognition in bodycams

Axon will not be using the tech in its cameras, heeding the recommendation of its ethics board


By Levi Sumagaysay
The Mercury News

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In the latest development highlighting the pitfalls of facial recognition, the nation’s largest maker of police body cams said it will not be using the technology in those cameras, heeding the recommendation of an independent ethics board.

Axon, the company formerly known as Taser, announced its decision Thursday, the same day its AI and policing technology ethics board released a report that concludes facial recognition is not yet reliable enough to be used on law enforcement’s body-worn cameras.

In this Feb. 19, 2015 file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company's body cameras during a company-sponsored conference at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,File)
In this Feb. 19, 2015 file photo, Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, demonstrates one of the company's body cameras during a company-sponsored conference at the California Highway Patrol Headquarters in Sacramento, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli,File)

“At the least, face recognition technology should not be deployed until the technology performs with far greater accuracy and performs equally well across races, ethnicities, genders and other identity groups,” the ethics board said in its report, which stems from a year’s worth of research and meetings.

The board, after looking at various previous studies, expressed concern about inaccuracies by the technology “when trying to identify people of color compared to white people, a troubling disparity that would only perpetuate or exacerbate the racial inequities that cut across the criminal justice system.”

Axon convened the ethics board last year. This study is the first released by the board, made up of 11 members who are experts in artificial intelligence, privacy, law enforcement, civil liberties and public policy.

“Policing works better when informed by thoughtful research,” said Jim Bueermann, a former police chief, founder of the Future Policing Institute and a member of the board, in a statement.

The Arizona company, which bought main competitor Vievu last year, says 47 of the 69 largest major police agencies in the United States uses its body cams.

In addition to accepting the ethics board’s recommendation on face recognition, Axon also agreed to accept a framework to consider when designing its products. Besides body cams and Tasers, the company also runs Evidence.com, a digital evidence-management system. The framework includes looking at the potential impact of Axon’s technology on privacy, possible misuse, whether it could lead to greater criminalization or counterproductive policing, and more.

“The important story is the broader one — that a manufacturer agreed to our framework telling it ‘here’s how you ought to look at AI questions generally,’” said Barry Friedman, faculty director of the nonprofit Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, which led the study that was partly funded by Axon.

California Assemblyman Phil Ting, a San Francisco Democrat, has a bill making its way through the state Legislature that would ban face recognition in body cams, called the company “courageous” for its decision.

“It strikes at how serious this matter is,” Ting said Thursday. “The cameras are paid for by taxpayers. They should help with transparency in law enforcement” and not be used as surveillance tools, he added.

Ting’s bill, AB 1215, passed out of the state Assembly in May and the Senate’s public safety committee a couple of weeks ago. It is now awaiting a Senate floor vote.

“The California Legislature, and legislatures throughout the country, should heed this warning and act to keep police body cameras from being deployed against communities,” said Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California, in a statement. “The same goes for companies like Microsoft and Amazon, who also have an independent obligation to act, as Axon did today.”

Axon’s decision follows the passage of a first-in-the-nation ordinance that bans the use of facial recognition by public agencies, including by police, in San Francisco.

Axon Ethics Board First Report by Ed Praetorian on Scribd

©2019 The Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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