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Police Body Cam Company Says it Won't Use Facial Recognition (For Now)

Police body camera company Axon announced that it will not be deploying facial recognition in its products, for now, due to “ethical concerns.”

by Caroline Haskins
Jun 27 2019, 5:24pm

Axon, a company that sells tasers and wearable body cameras to 48 major cities in the U.S., announced today that it would “not be commercializing face matching products on our body cameras at this time.”

“Our AI team will continue to evaluate the state of face recognition technologies and will keep the board informed about our research,” the press release says.

Axon’s announcement is not equivalent to a permanent or indefinite “ban” on facial recognition. Rather, Axon claims that they will not be using facial recognition, for now, due to “ethical concerns” about the technology. Facial recognition is poor at correctly identifying people of color, women, and young people, and it routinely misgenders transgender individuals.

The announcement follows recommendations from the NYU School of Law’s Policing Project, which worked with Axon’s AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board for a year discussing the possibility of deploying facial recognition technology in body cameras. The Policing Project recommended against the use of the technology.

“Face recognition technology is not currently reliable enough to ethically justify its use on body-worn cameras,” the Policing Project press release says. “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.”

Axon’s AI & Policing Technology Ethics Board released its first report this month. The report cited a Motherboard article that discusses how facial recognition technology often misgenders transgender individuals. The report claimed that the board is aware of the current “accuracy and reliability” issues with facial recognition.

San Francisco became the first American city to ban facial recognition last month. Somerville, MA will be voting on a measure that could ban facial recognition Wednesday night, and Oakland, CA is voting on a similar measure next month. However, these regulations can only target taxpayer-funded, public entities. When private entities like Axon are left to the task of regulating themselves, they can simply leave themselves open to the possibility of using facial recognition technology in the future.

Even without facial recognition technology, the use of body cameras by police is controversial. While the ACLU has argued that body cameras could provide a crucial transparency tool for police departments, organizations like the EFF have argued that body cameras are simply a wearable extension of the surveillance state, and can be weaponized against vulnerable populations in the same manner as other types of evidence.

In 2017, Axon announced that it would provide free body cameras to every police department in the country. But a Muckrock investigation revealed that often, the cost of storing body camera videos far outweighs the cost of the cameras, and police department can get locked into using the service in order to access evidence.

When reached by Motherboard for comment, Axon restated the language from its official press release.