Thursday, December 7, 2023

Axon halts Taser drone project as majority of ethics board resigns

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After a furious backlash, development is halted on a Taser-using drone proposed as a solution to mass shootings in schools.

On Sunday, Axon, the maker of the stunning Taser gun, announced it was halting work on its drone-mounted Taser project just days after the idea was presented to the public. The announcement marks the end – at least for now – of a project that has been widely seen as unrealizable at best, and at worst, a dystopian extension to already a fatal line of police armament.

The concept of a drone Taser was originally announced by Axon on June 2. Just over a week after the shooting of Uvalde, CEO Rick Smith tweeted that the company had developed a “remotely operated, non-lethal drone system” and wanted to start discussions on how it could be introduced in schools. But the announcement received an almost universally negative response, with many commentators expressing concern about the ways in which armed police drones could be misused.

Axon responded to the criticism by releasing a a statement from its AI ethics advisory board; perhaps a poorly advised strategy as the statement explained that the majority of the board strongly advised Axon not to proceed with the project. In Reddit AMA session after the announcement, CEO Smith explained that the board could offer advice to Axon, but would ultimately be canceled in the event that an agreement between board and company could not be reached. Smith also noted that the board had warned against publication with the drone announcement after Uvalde’s shooting but again, was canceled.

After being repeatedly ignored, it seems that many board members have become skeptical about their ability to influence the company in a meaningful way. On June 5, a member of Axon’s ethics board told Reuters nine of the 12 board members resigned in protest, an action which the company seemed to confirm in a blog post this acknowledged that an unspecified number of board members had “chosen to retire”.

The nine board members, including police and privacy law specialists Barry Friedman, Danielle Citron, and Ryan Calo, said they were caught unawares by Axon’s announcement of the Taser drone. In declaration of resignation published by the NYU School of Law Police Project on June 6, they wrote that the announcement “sympathizes with the tragedy of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings.”

“The Taser-equipped drone … has no realistic chance of solving the mass shooting problem for which Axon is now prescribing it, only distracting society from real solutions to a tragic problem,” the board members said. “We all feel the desperate need to do something to address our epidemic of mass shootings. But Axon’s proposal to raise technical and police response when there are far fewer damaging alternatives is not the solution.”

It is tempting to say that convening an ethics council is just a fig tree for Axon, but the company has been more responsive to its suggestions in the past. In 2019, Axon overturned the decision to incorporate facial recognition technology into police body cameras, recognizing the ethics board’s “thoughtful and expedient recommendations” on addressing some of the biases inherent in automated facial compatibility.

In this case, Axon seems to have considered the feedback from the board (and from the public) only after criticism reached a fever, leading to a humiliating reversal of course for the company. In any case, the decision to discontinue the project was welcomed by civil rights groups, including the New York Surveillance Technology Oversight Project (STOP).

“I’m glad they’re now basing this proposal, but I’m sorry it ever started to work,” said STOP managing director Albert Fox Cahn. “Only someone who has completely lost touch with reality would think that the American people would want these dropping Terminators in our schools.”


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