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TASER calls out facial recognition in police body cameras as unethical

TASER calls out facial recognition in police body cameras as unethical
The company that put the ability to electrocute civilians in every cop's pocket has declared it will not sell facial recognition software with its body camera products, claiming the tech is not reliable enough for ethical use.

Current face matching technology raises serious ethical concerns,” Taser – which quietly renamed itself Axon in 2017 after its line of police body cameras – stated in a blog post on Thursday, announcing that “Axon will not be commercializing face matching products on our body matching cameras at this time.”

The company’s decision follows the first report from its independent AI and Policing Technology Ethics Board, which concluded the tech was “not yet reliable enough to justify its use on body-worn cameras” and “expressed particular concern regarding evidence of unequal and unreliable performance across races, ethnicities, genders and other identity groups.” 

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While Taser's body cameras are currently capable of tracking and re-identifying faces in order to find every appearance of a person in a video, whether to track a suspect or to redact the faces of private citizens for public release of a video, the software is not connected to a database, and it won't be any time soon – though the company is investigating “ways to de-bias algorithms” in order to dismantle the ethical barriers, which would require tech that at least “performs equally well across races, ethnicities, genders, and other identity group.”

The ethics board is less sanguine about the possibility of Taser ever developing “ethical” facial recognition software, especially if the software is customizable by the user. Made up of independent policy and tech experts, the board was drawn up last year to provide ethical guidance as Taser developed its body camera line.

We are strongly opposed to Axon (or any company) designing a body camera, enabled with face recognition, for law enforcement to use as they see fit,” the board's report declares, pointing to police's “long history of not using emerging technologies in responsible ways.”

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Taser’s own history may have figured in the board’s decision. Designed as a less-than-lethal weapon that would allow police to temporarily disable dangerous suspects, the devices have instead been abused by officers who deploy them liberally on harmless individuals from children to grandmothers.

And when the company that became synonymous with police abuse by giving cops the ability to electrocute civilians with the push of a button suddenly starts raising ethical objections to a new policing technology, questions arise whether its concerns are sincere or it merely wants to avoid having to change its name again.

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