Nine out of twelve members of the ethics committee chosen by Axon to help guide the company’s technology decisions have resigned. They cite the company’s plans to put in Taser-equipped drones as well as a plethora of surveillance of schools. “After several years of work, the company has fundamentally failed to embrace the values that we have tried to instill,” the leaving members wrote. “We have lost faith in Axon’s ability to be a responsible partner.”
Axon (formerly Taser) has developed into a massive provider of law enforcement hardware and software in recent times, providing not only the well-known and earlier eponymous electric guns but also body cameras as well as complete digital platforms for managing evidence. Leaving aside the inherent dangers of privatizing these things, Axon has been rather impressively thoughtful in its technology and has sought the opinions of the communities in which these tools will be utilized in, as well as the police officers who wear or use the devices.
The AI Ethics Board was established in the past few years as it became apparent that machine learning is an extremely useful tool, however, it also had the potential to easily be abused, poorly constructed or misused, or a combination of both. The board, comprised of academics, experts, and professionals from the industry, would offer a balanced view of the technology that recommended security measures, accountability measures, and more.
It was a great start, the resigning members made the form of a statement:
We joined the Board because we believed in the possibility of influencing the future direction of the business by influencing the company’s direction in ways that aid in reducing the harms that technology policing can cause and help to better reap any potential benefits. We observed that influence manifest in the way Axon made its decisions. From not equipping their products with facial-recognition features and removing a software program that collects information from social media sites and promoting the urgently needed legislation that would make it easier to bring licensing plate reader use under control. we saw tangible evidence of the changes we made.
Techcrunch spoke to Chief Executive Officer Rich Smith back in 2020 and discovered he had an honest, refreshing view on the issue of whether technology could be the answer to the current problem with police.
“Tech isn’t an all-encompassing solution. It’s not going be able to solve these issues in our favor,” he said. However, equally important as he said, is that without technology certain problems are not solvable. Body cameras and other forms of digital monitoring of police encounters are not pure good, but how do we expect these incidents to be documented in a systematic way? The ones who decide on these devices aren’t the police, but the businesses that create them. Axon has fought to place its own company in that position.
However, it has recently gone too far in the issue of the amount and kind of technology that can be used as a means of deterring mass shootings.
“[Axon] intends to develop Taser-equipped drones, pre-position them in potential targets for mass and school shootings, and encircle those targets in surveillance cameras with real-time streaming capabilities,” the letter from the board is announcing.
“The board was presented to and discussed this Taser Drone as something to be controlled, and with stringent control because there are many concerns to be addressed concerning the usage of this kind of device. The board was informed with a little announcement that Axon was planning to release the device as a widely-used idea, completely ignoring the warnings that were imposed by AI Ethics Board. AI Ethics Board” explained Mecole McBride, a former board member and advocate director of the NYU’s Policing Project Watchdog organization. “If it was that easy to move the Board to the side on something this consequential, we had to ask ourselves, what are we doing here?”
The board of directors warned Axon of the possibility that should they continue to pursue this plan the resignations would follow. The board continued to warn them — and Axon resigned.
In response to this and the outcry of other members of the community who believe to suggest that this may not have been the right reaction to the danger of mass shootings, Smith wrote the blog post admitting that the company might be getting ahead of itself.
“In light of feedback, we are pausing work on this project and refocusing to further engage with key constituencies to fully explore the best path forward,” the author wrote. “A remote-operated, non-lethal TASER-enabled drone for schools is an idea and not a product and is a long way from. We’re still doing a lot of study and research to see whether this technology is feasible, and also to figure out whether the concerns of the public can be adequately addressed prior to proceeding.”
He also stated that they will have to be “enhance” the process of gathering alternative opinions, but as McBride stated that it appears to have overstepped its current method. What changes would it take to stop it from doing this in the future for anyone who is well-staffed who is in an advisory capacity, whereas people in the decision-making posts? Axon was not able to answer any questions about how the Board will be governed in the near future, but he did refer me to the previous post.
Strangely, Smith claims in it that the members who resigned from the ethics committee “have chosen to withdraw from directly engaging on these issues before we heard or had a chance to address their technical questions.”
However, Max Isaacs, an attorney for the Policing Project who worked with Axon and the board on this concept and stated the following “For over a year, the Ethics Board engaged with Axon to discuss the parameters of a narrow pilot program,” suggesting that Smith’s report is incorrect. “The company’s breach of its promise to consult the Ethics Board before making such momentous decisions and its embrace of persistent mass surveillance indicates that Axon is not sufficiently committed to developing this technology in a responsible manner,” Isaacs stated. In a separate message, he said in another message that the company “pleaded” with Axon not to announce the concept.
Axon representative explained that Axon representative clarified it was the case that they had to weigh in on a drone equipped with a Taser to be used by police and not the one “pre-installed in public spaces” and then briefly intended to be used in schools. This isn’t a great justification for the claim that the board wasn’t involved in their concerns about deployments by police would surely be even more pressing in the case of deployment in schools. As the resignation letter stated, Axon, didn’t give them the time they needed to respond, more likely they knew precisely what their response was going to be.
However, whatever the outcome, the Taser Drone program is currently in the works and Axon might be cautious before engaging in an argument over a game in hand. Technology will always play an important part to play in security and law enforcement, however, it’s not doing anyone much good (and could have grave consequences) to advance more quickly than we are able to imagine.
Alexia is the author at Research Snipers covering all technology news including Google, Apple, Android, Xiaomi, Huawei, Samsung News, and More.