Tech Supplier Rejects Use of Facial Recognition in Police Body Cameras

(CN) –Yielding to worries that facial recognition technology could exacerbate racial injustices, a major supplier of law enforcement cameras said Thursday it won’t be adding the technology to its police body cameras.

Axon, which sells stun guns, body cameras and cellphone software to law enforcement agencies in over 100 countries, is banning the implementation of facial recognition capabilities in its body cameras. The Arizona-based and publicly traded company says it will follow the recommendation of its board of ethics and continue improving the technology before selling it to law enforcement.

“Face recognition technology is not currently reliable enough to ethically justify its use on body-worn cameras,” the ethics board said in a report.

The dose of corporate caution comes as Congress and states, including California, are increasing scrutiny over the budding technology.

Earlier this month, the House Oversight Committee conducted a two-day hearing on the results of a three-year audit of how the federal government is using facial recognition devices. The audit found the FBI already has 640 million photos in its database, yet it hasn’t fully implemented the privacy and transparency fixes recommended by the Homeland Security Government Accountability Office.

Meanwhile, California lawmakers are considering a wholesale ban of facial recognition in state and local law enforcement agency body cameras. San Francisco officials also recently voted to bar its police force from using the cameras.

Critics believe widespread use of facial technology could not only turn street-level officers into mobile surveillance devices, but open minorities up to wrongful arrests. They argue that the technology has been proven to misidentify black and Latino people.

A notable 2018 test performed by the American Civil Liberties Union found that Amazon’s facial recognition product incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with the mugshots of other people. Furthermore, the false matches were disproportionately of people of color. The test prompted the Congressional Black Caucus to ask Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to proceed carefully with the lucrative but inherently flawed technology.

“Ostensibly purchased and deployed by law enforcement for the purposes of expediently and accurately identifying criminals, we are troubled by the profound negative unintended consequences this form of artificial intelligence could have for African Americans, undocumented immigrants and protestors,” the caucus said in a letter.

Law enforcement groups see the technology as a crime-fighting tool that can help it identify not only suspects, but witnesses as well. California agencies are fighting against the proposed ban, contending that the technology could be fine-tuned in the near future.

Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco, says Axon has been supportive of his proposed statewide ban and the lawmaker called Thursday’s announcement “courageous.”

“Axon is raising the bar from a moral and ethical point of view,” Ting said in a phone interview.

Ting’s proposal, Assembly Bill 1215, has cleared the Assembly and could be voted on in the Senate this summer.

Amid the privacy and civil rights concerns, Axon put together an independent ethics board in 2018 to research the technology before making it widely available. The 11-member board consists of civil rights, law enforcement, computer science, robotics and legal experts and was picked by the Policing Project at New York University School of Law.

After a year of meetings, the board says it’s unwilling to endorse the current facial recognition software. It says it will continue to research the topic and issue further reports if necessary.

“When assessing the costs and benefits of potential use cases, one must take into account both the realities of policing in America (and in other jurisdictions) and existing technological limitations,” the report states.

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