Police body camera maker Axon weighs implementation of real-time facial recognition

Real-time face recognition could soon be coming to law enforcement body cameras, as Axon, the largest supplier of the devices in the U.S., is considering implementing artificial intelligence capabilities in its products, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) reports.

The company, which was formerly known as Taser International, recently announced that it has created an AI ethics board to guide its development of the technology.

A response was quickly published as an open letter (PDF) co-signed by more than three dozen organizations, including the ACLU, Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the NAACP, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition. The letter notes Axon’s acknowledgement of its responsibility to ensure its products “don’t drive unfair or unethical outcomes or amplify racial inequities in policing.” The coalition urges the new ethics board to assert that deploying real-time facial recognition of live video captured by body cameras is categorically unethical.

“Axon’s bodyworn camera systems, which should serve as transparency tools, are now being reduced to powerful surveillance tools that are concentrated in heavily policed communities,” according to the letter.

The coalition also urges the board to prioritize the perspectives of those affected by its technologies, take measures, including contractual terms, that prohibit the unethical use of its technology by customers, and to review the ethics of all of Axon’s digital products, on the grounds that they could be used as data sources in future AI applications.

The company’s move to cameras bundled with software is motivated by the falling cost of cameras and increasing competition, according to OPB.

Axon CEO Rick Smith said in an interview with NPR that the company agrees with some of the potential risks identified in the letter, but compared the technology to guns and other powerful law enforcement tools, which can be and sometimes are misused, but are necessary for police to their job.

“You could imagine many benefits. I think we’ll see biometrics, including facial recognition technology, that properly deployed with the right oversight over the coming decades could ultimately reduce prejudice in policing and help catch dangerous people that we all agree we don’t want out in our communities and do it in a way that, at the same time, respects police transparency and rights of privacy of the average citizen,” Smith said.

Axon recently acquired its largest competitor, Vievu.

NPR recently explored the possibility and implications of real-time facial recognition technology, while the Wall Street Journal reports that the technology could be available for body cameras by fall of this year.

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