Taser Wants to Build an Army of Smartphone Informants

Axon, formerly known as Taser, will allow private individuals to upload video evidence of “a crime, suspicious activity, or event" to its cloud platform.

Axon, the world’s largest vendor of police-worn body cameras, is moving into the business of capturing video taken by the public. In a survey emailed to law enforcement officials last month, the company formerly known as Taser International solicited naming ideas for its provisionally titled Public Evidence Product. According to the survey, the product will allow citizens to submit photos or video evidence of “a crime, suspicious activity, or event” to Evidence.com, the company’s cloud-based storage platform, to help agencies “in solving a crime or gathering a fuller point of view from the public.” Civil rights advocates interviewed by The Intercept were surprised to learn about the corporation’s latest initiative, seeing it as yet another untested effort to co-opt community oversight and privatize criminal justice.

“When police body cameras were initially established, it was because citizens were clamoring for police accountability,” explained Shahid Buttar, director of grassroots advocacy with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “But we’ve seen how cameras have been more useful for police investigations than for accountability. This product realizes those dangers and takes them to a new dystopian level by crowdsourcing the collection of evidence and turning it over to law enforcement.”


Screenshot of an Axon survey emailed to law enforcement officials in August.

Screenshot: Evidence.com

Body camera vendors like Taser originally pitched the collection of video evidence to lawmakers as a way to increase accountability, transparency, and trust between civilians and police. Three years and several million taxpayer dollars later, those promises have been called into question. Body camera footage has rarely been used to indict officers for brutality, and several states have introduced measures to restrict the public’s access to it. For privacy and civil rights organizations, enthusiasm about the technology has given way to growing concern about beat cops turning into walking surveillance cameras. Buttar and others fear that by adding civilian footage to Evidence.com, Axon is expanding this dragnet — and grabbing more data to feed its in-house “AI team.”

Earlier this year, when Taser rebranded as Axon, it announced plans to apply deep learning algorithms to the thousands of hours of police video it stores on Evidence.com. Just as Google and Amazon turn profits through their intimate access to our patterns of attention and consumption, Axon’s ability to mine its ever-growing archive of police video will allow the company to gain an edge on its competitors. By running analytics on its video collection, Axon claims that departments will be able to automate their paperwork and “anticipate criminal activity.” Although Axon has signed lucrative contracts with the nation’s major police departments, it has offered the rest its hardware free of charge, since its revenue comes from monthly subscriptions to Evidence.com. Axon’s CEO has called this model “Dropbox for Cops.”


Screenshot: Evidence.com

Axon’s new Public Evidence Product, Buttar explained, serves as yet another source of data the company can monetize. “There have been many cases where private corporations have leveraged databases not to improve safety but to extract rent from already impoverished communities,” he said. For instance, Vigilant Solutions, the company manufacturing automatic license plate readers, collects a service fee when departments use its technology to identify and ticket flagged plates. “Those kinds of abuses are likely to recur here.”

Joshua Reeves, the author of “Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society,” sees Axon’s interest in soliciting personal cellphone footage as part of a “disturbing trend: the increasing privatization of what has previously been a public practice.”

“This [trend] is happening in a million different ways, whether it’s people photographing evidence of crimes on Facebook or apps that allow you to take photographs and report other people’s parking violations. This is becoming more prominent, and more and more minute offenses are being drawn into this vast surveillance dragnet.”

The introduction of a third party that mediates the interactions of police and citizens, Reeves noted, represents a fairly recent development. Tips and evidence are not just going straight to law enforcement; they’re also entering the strongbox of a “huge private data corporation,” complete with its own terms of service. “If Taser owns your data, you don’t own your data,” Reeves explained. “We don’t know how they are going to use it. Especially given the longtime collaboration with Taser and the security apparatus, that’s something that is particularly troubling.”

An Axon spokesperson said the company does not generally comment on products that have yet to be released. The company did confirm, however, that the Public Evidence Product would be announced to the public in the coming weeks and that the product was designed to “help solve crimes or respond to incidents that impact public safety.”

A Los Angeles Police Department officer wears a body camera at the  Los Angeles Gay Pride Resist March, June 11, 2017 in Hollywood, California.    / AFP PHOTO / Robyn Beck        (Photo credit should read ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images)

A Los Angeles police officer wears a body camera at the Los Angeles Gay Pride Resist March, June 11, 2017, in Hollywood, California.

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Judging from prior uses of body camera footage, Buttar is not hopeful that citizens uploading videos to the Public Evidence Product’s platform will lead to more accountability. Reports have shown that police break, lose, switch off, or fail to activate the cameras; departments have tampered with or withheld their footage. “When police have evidence of law enforcement abuses, they have a history of not acting on it,” he said, adding that defense attorneys already have difficulty gaining access to exculpatory footage. “To the extent that members of a community are concerned about crime, they are often concerned about those with badges [committing it]. It’s those videos that need to find their ways into independent repositories controlled by civil rights groups — and not law enforcement agencies — if it’s ever going to see the light of day.”

In fact, both the American Civil Liberties Union and Witness, a video advocacy organization, have developed apps and resources just for this purpose. The ACLU’s Mobile Justice App, used by over a dozen state affiliates, automatically encrypts and uploads cellphone footage to ACLU servers as it’s being captured. Meanwhile, Witness’s ObscuraCam app allows users to disguise faces captured in videos. Though the right to record video in public (and video of police in particular) is constitutionally protected, both organizations developed their apps in response to what the ACLU calls the “widespread, continuing pattern of law enforcement officers ordering people to stop taking photographs or video in public places and harassing, detaining, and arresting those who fail to comply.”

“We are offering a good and safe place for your video to end up should you happen to record something,” explained Ben Bowens of the Pennsylvania ACLU. “As far as Taser is concerned,” he said, “what are they planning on doing with the video in the aftermath? We have a staff of lawyers planning on taking action to protect your rights. What is Taser planning on doing with that footage as a private organization?”

Dennis Flores, founder of activist organization El Grito de Sunset Park and a veteran copwatcher, questioned whether Axon would act on evidence of police misconduct. “Let’s say someone captures footage of cops doing something wrong and gives it to Taser. It’s already enough that the police department withholds information. What the hell is a third party going to do?”

Flores trains civilians in the practice of safely filming police for the purpose of copwatching. In contrast to Axon’s Public Evidence Product, video obtained from copwatching is intended to help communities “build our own disciplinary records as members of the public.” And, as a general rule, copwatchers are explicitly discouraged from filming criminal activity, incriminating targets, or aiding the police with investigations.

Dia Kayyali, who coordinates video trainings at Witness, explained that protecting the identity of both the videographers and the targets is crucial for ensuring the safety of those filming. “With this program, I doubt that there is going to be any acknowledgement about how different people feel safe approaching or filming the police,” Kayyali said. “This program is more likely to be used to profile people who the police already target.”

Reeves, the surveillance scholar, echoed this prognosis. “As the history of body cameras will tell us, these [videos] are not going to be used primarily to crack down on police misbehavior. Mechanisms of oversight will often be used for other purposes, and this program will do something else, whether it’s encouraging more snitching or building biometric databases or filling the coffers of Axon and other companies trying to get into big data.”

Update: September 22, 2017

The day after this article was published, Axon requested a follow-up interview. Company spokesperson Steve Tuttle said that Axon does not own or watch any of the videos uploaded to its servers, which are managed by Microsoft Azure. “If an agency quits our program tomorrow, we don’t own their evidence,” Tuttle said. Citizens who upload video, he explained, are “not giving it to Taser. They are giving it to the department. They’re giving it to the agency that’s involved, and that’s it.”

When asked about the fears raised by civil liberties experts about the company running artificial intelligence analytics on the video’s metadata, Tuttle said, “We haven’t determined any of that yet. We haven’t set forth parameters on describing in any detail the program. We haven’t even launched the product yet.” He emphasized that Axon was currently using AI “to reduce the amount of paperwork, to automate certain things, and to get police officers back on the streets.”

Tuttle stated that he was unable to provide The Intercept with any further details about the Public Evidence Product, as it had yet to be publicly released, but he noted that “without going into detail about how this works, this is about specific crimes. It is not a fishing expedition.”

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