Axon’s AI Ethics Board resigns over plan to surveil schools with armed drones

Nine of 12 members of an ethics board appointed by Axon to advise its technology decisions have resigned, citing the company’s plan to install Taser-equipped drones and pervasive surveillance at schools. “After several years of work, the company has fundamentally failed to embrace the values that we have tried to instill,” the departing members write. “We have lost faith in Axon’s ability to be a responsible partner.”

Axon (formerly Taser) has grown into a juggernaut of law enforcement software and hardware in recent years, providing not just the familiar and formerly eponymous electric weapons but body cameras and entire digital platforms for evidence management. Setting aside for now the inherent risks of privatizing such things, Axon has been rather surprisingly thoughtful with its tech, soliciting the advice of the communities these tools will be used in as well as the cops who will wear or wield them.

The AI Ethics Board was established a few years ago as it became clear that machine learning was an extremely valuable tool but also one that could easily be poorly built, applied abusively or some combination of the two. The board, a collection of experts, academics and industry professionals, would provide a tempering perspective on the tech that suggested safeguards, accountability measures and so on.

It had a good start, the resigning members wrote in a statement:

Each of us joined this Board in the belief that we could influence the direction of the company in ways that would help to mitigate the harms that policing technology can sow and better capture any benefits. For a time, we saw that influence play out in some of Axon’s decisions. From not equipping any of its products with facial recognition capabilities, to withdrawing a new software tool to collect data from social media websites, to promoting desperately needed legislation to bring the use of license plate readers under control, we observed tangible evidence of the difference we were making.

I chatted with CEO Rich Smith back in 2020 and found he had a refreshingly honest take on the question of whether tech is the answer to an ongoing policing crisis.

“Tech isn’t a panacea. It’s not going to solve these problems for us,” he said. But equally true, he continued, is the fact that without technology, some of these problems will be insoluble. Body cameras and other digital tracking of police encounters is not an unmixed good but how else do we expect such events to be systematically recorded? The ones who will define these tools are not the police but the companies that make them, and Axon has jockeyed to put itself in that position.

But recently it may have gone too far in the matter of how much and what type of tech should be brought to bear as a deterrent against mass shootings.

“[Axon] intends to develop Taser-equipped drones, pre-position them in potential targets for mass and school shootings, and encircle those targets in surveillance cameras with real-time streaming capabilities,” the board’s letter reads.

“The board had been introduced to and deliberated about the Taser Drone as something to be piloted, with strict controls because there are so many questions to be answered about the use of this kind of equipment. However, the board was notified with very short notice that Axon planned to announce this tool as a widespread concept, completely bypassing the caution of the AI Ethics Board,” said Mecole McBride, former board member and advocacy director for NYU’s Policing Project watchdog group. “If it was that easy to move the Board to the side on something this consequential, we had to ask ourselves, what are we doing here?”

The board warned Axon that if they pursued this as planned, there would be resignations. It continued — and they resigned.

With this and outcry from others in the community that perhaps this was not the appropriate response to the threat of mass shootings, Smith penned this blog post acknowledging the company may have gotten ahead of itself.

“In light of feedback, we are pausing work on this project and refocusing to further engage with key constituencies to fully explore the best path forward,” he wrote. “A remotely operated non-lethal TASER-enabled drone in schools is an idea, not a product, and it’s a long way off. We have a lot of work and exploring to see if this technology is even viable and to understand if the public concerns can be adequately addressed before moving forward.”

He also said they would be “enhancing” the process of collecting alternative opinions, though as McBride pointed out, it seems to have steamrolled over its existing system. What enhancements would prevent it from doing the same thing in the future to anybody, however well staffed, that is in a purely advisory role while hawks are in the decision-making positions? Axon did not answer questions relating to the future of the board, referring me to the above-mentioned post.

Curiously, Smith claims in it that the resigning members of the ethics board “have chosen to withdraw from directly engaging on these issues before we heard or had a chance to address their technical questions.”

Yet Max Isaacs, an attorney for the Policing Project who worked with Axon and the board on this idea, stated that “For over a year, the Ethics Board engaged with Axon to discuss the parameters of a narrow pilot program,” implying Smith’s account has it backward. “The company’s breach of its promise to consult the Ethics Board before making such momentous decisions and its embrace of persistent mass surveillance indicates that Axon is not sufficiently committed to developing this technology in a responsible manner,” Isaacs said. He reiterated in another message that they “pleaded” with Axon not to go public with the idea.

An Axon representative explained that the board had weighed in on a Taser-equipped drone for police, not the one “pre-installed in public spaces” and briefly intended for use in schools. It’s a bit thin as cover for saying the board hadn’t weighed in: Their concerns for deployments by police must surely have been even more pressing for deployment in schools. And as the resignation letter noted, Axon didn’t give them much time to respond — or more likely, knew exactly what the response would be.

Whatever the case, the Taser Drone plan is on ice and Axon may think twice before jumping into a powder-keg discussion, match in hand. Tech will always have an important role in safety and law enforcement, but it does no one any good (and may well have serious repercussions) to move faster than we can think.