Taser maker says it wont use facial recognition in bodycams

Enlarge / A body camera from Taser is seen during a press conference at City Hall September 24, 2014 in Washington, DC.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / Getty Images News

Axon, creator of the Taser, did something unusual for a technology company last year. The Arizona corporation convened an ethics board of external experts to offer guidance on potential downsides of its technology.

Thursday, that group published a report recommending that the company not deploy facial recognition technology on its body cameras, widely used by US police departments. The report said the technology was too unreliable and could exacerbate existing inequities in policing, for example by penalizing black or LBGTQ communities.

Axons CEO and founder Rick Smith agrees. “This recommendation is quite reasonable,” he says in an interview. “Without this ethics board we may have moved forward before we really understood what could go wrong with this technology.”

The decision shows how facial recognition technology—while not new—has become highly controversial as it becomes more widely used. The power that software capable of recognizing people in public could give police and governments has struck a nerve with citizens and lawmakers seemingly inured to technology that redefines privacy. As a result, Axon and other technology companies are advancing more cautiously with the technology, a departure from the usual pattern of moving fast, breaking things, and leaving society to patch up the problems.

Civil rights groups, lawmakers and companies including Microsoft and Amazon have called for restrictions on facial recognition—although there is disagreement on how tight or absolute those should be. Their concerns have been amplified by researchers showing how facial analysis algorithms can suffer biases that make them less accurate for women, children, and people of color. San Francisco has banned city agencies from using facial recognition, and at a congressional hearing last month lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed support for federal rules on the technology.

“Often new technologies are just sold and our communities find there are negative impacts later,” says Mecole Jordan, one of 11 members of Axons ethics board, who include lawyers, technologists, and law enforcement veterans. Jordan is executive director of the United Congress of Community and Religious Organizations, which works on police accountability and other issues in Illinois. “Im excited that Axons CEO has said he would adhere to our recommendations,” she said.

Axon formed its ethics board in April 2018, saying it would meet quarterly and publish one or more reports each year. That schedule proved optimistic: Thursdays report was the groups first and it said the members have met only three times. But the board is one of the most prominent examples of a tech company creating a new governance structure to keep its artificial intelligence projects within moral bounds.

“Overall this appears to be a very good effort,” says Don Heider, executive director of Santa Clara Universitys Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. “These efforts to put together ethics boards are new [and] this company is on the cutting edge.”
Microsoft and Google both say they have internal review processes for AI projects that have led them to turn down certain contracts. Critics—including employees who protested Googles work on a Pentagon drone project—say external oversight is necessary. In May, Google abandoned an attempt to create an external AI panel after opposition to one of its members, Kay Coles James, president of conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

Smith says Axons ethics board was inspired by a controversy of its own, after the company acquired two AI companies in 2017. Speculation began to spread that Axon would inevitably threaten privacy by adding facial recognition to its cameras; Smith says the company only planned to create tools to help police manage videos, and redact faces and other identifying information. “The idea was this board could bring us the perspectives we dont normally hear,” Smith says. Axon also has a history of fighting having to fight claims its technology is dangerous. The company has been a defendant in more than 120 wrongful death lawsuits involving Tasers in the US, according to a 2017 Reuters analysis of legal filings. In some the company was found liable, and paid damages.

After Axon revealed its new ethics panel, some academics and community groups said it didnt represent a sufficient diversity of views. The report issued Thursday describes how new members were added—including Jordan—to counter accusations including that the group did not include enough representatives of the people most affected by police technology.

Thursdays report says facial recognition emerged as centerpiece of the boards discussions. It notes evidence that the technology is less accurate for people with darker skin, and on fast-moving video footage, and concludes that Axon could not ethically integrate it into bodycams. “Face recognition technology is not currently reliable enough to ethically justify its use on bodyworRead More – Source

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