Civil Rights Groups Urge Top Body Cam Maker to Not Implement Facial Recognition

Body cam company Axon's announcement that it is researching artificial intelligence applications for its products has sparked an ethics debate on whether or not police body cams should be equipped with facial recognition technology.

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Police body cams are traditionally viewed as a tool to hold police accountable for their actions, but a new research and development initiative by top U.S. body cam developer Axon has civil liberties groups worried that the devices may soon begin to contain features useful to spy and collect data on citizens instead.

NBC News notes that Axon announced last Thursday that it has created an ethics board to steer its research and development into artificial intelligence applications for its products. The company obtained two artificial intelligence businesses last year, and, according to Police Magazine, CEO Rick Smith said in a 2009 presentation on future tech for body cams that upcoming upgrades may include facial and license plate recognition tech to help police look for wanted criminals. Axon, which provides technological solutions for law enforcement, used to be branded as TASER International after its popular stun gun line.

[Related: Facebook Accused of Violating Privacy Via Facial Recognition Technology]

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A coalition of 42 civil rights groups including the ACLU, NAACP, and the Legal Aid Society have drafted a letter urging Axon’s ethics board to block the company from developing facial recognition technology for body cams.

The letter argued, “Axon must not offer or enable [facial recognition on body cams]. Real-time face recognition would chill the constitutional freedoms of speech and association, especially at political protests. In addition, research indicates that face recognition technology will never be perfectly accurate and reliable, and that accuracy rates are likely to differ based on subjects’ race and gender. Real-time face recognition therefore would inevitably misidentify some innocent civilians as suspects. These errors could have fatal consequences—consequences that fall disproportionately on certain populations. Real-time face recognition could also prime officers to perceive individuals as more dangerous than they really are and to use more force than the situation requires. No policy or safeguard can mitigate these risks sufficiently well for real-time face recognition ever to be marketable.”

Washington state ACLU Director Shankar Narayan said according to Fast Company, “If body cams themselves undermine people’s willingness to talk to cops, then imagine what it would be like if body cameras with live streaming or face recognition were implemented?” Civil liberties advocates worry that someone with a minor non-violent criminal record may then be unwilling to give a report to police that might help them stop a major crime in progress that threatens the public.

The South China Morning Post notes that approximately 4,000 Chinese police officers already have body cams with 720 degree viewing and facial recognition tech on board as a part of an early roll out of a pilot program.

Spokespersons for Axon claim that the company is not currently working on facial recognition technology and instead that it is working on applications to auto-blur bystanders’ faces, sort through footage, and automate post-incident report writing.

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