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Surveillance State of Mind

America Pays for Free Body Cameras With Its Civil Rights

The company formerly known as TASER changed its name to Axon and is offering a free trial of its body cameras to every cop in America, but the plan raises alarming questions about the future of surveillance.

Harlan Yu

Axon

Harlan Yu is a technologist and principal at Upturn, a Washington-DC based technology policy research organization.

Yesterday, Axon, the company formerly known as TASER and the nation's largest body-worn camera vendor, dropped a bombshell: in an effort to corner the lucrative body camera market, the company announced plans to offer free body-worn cameras to every police officer in the United States for one year.

For many cash-strapped police departments, this offer may at first glance appear to be an attractive proposition. But there are many reasons why police departments and cities should be cautious, and resist the instinct to jump on this "free" offer.

Despite the popular narrative about the benefits of body-worn cameras, they carry huge risks for communities, especially for our overpoliced communities of color. Major civil rights and civil liberties organizations—from the NAACP and the ACLU, to grassroots racial justice groups—fear that "these new devices could become instruments of injustice, rather than tools for accountability," as a coalition of them wrote in a 2015 statement.

They are right to worry. Police departments across the country have consistently failed to implement policy safeguards that are critical to protecting the civil rights of individuals captured on video.

For one, most departments make no promises about when they will release footage, even after high-profile incidents or to people looking to file police misconduct complaints. Even worse, departments nearly always allow their officers to watch footage before they give an initial statement or report—even after a police shooting.

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But watching footage can easily distort officers' memories and make it easy for officers to conform their statements to what footage appears to show, rather than provide untainted reports about their actual experience of a situation. These policies are often negotiated with unions but rarely with communities, so it's not surprising that they tend to favor the interests of departments and their officers. But weak policies aren't the only thing to worry about.

An even more dangerous future lies ahead: Axon and other camera vendors are already beginning to incorporate face recognition technologies into their camera systems. Imagine a police officer walking down the street, scanning each person's face in real-time, and instantly looking those faces up in police and intelligence databases. As body cameras become ubiquitous, face recognition will soon turn body camera systems into mass surveillance systems—and those cameras will be pointed most often at already heavily policed communities of color.

It can take years to develop and roll out a successful body camera program, particularly one that involves meaningful community input. By offering a "free" one year trial for cameras, Axon creates a perverse incentive for departments to rush into deploying body-worn cameras without taking the necessary time to engage with the community about why the department wants to adopt cameras, and to carefully and publicly deliberate the difficult policy tradeoffs that cameras present.

Before taking Axon's bait, departments and city councils should be clear-eyed about why Axon is making this offer. Axon makes most of its money by charging departments for the ongoing storage of petabytes of video footage—not by selling camera hardware.

Offering free cameras is a clear strategic move by the company to corner the market and create vendor lock-in. Even though Axon assures prospective customers that they will own their data, switching vendors and platforms will be cumbersome and expensive. Once Axon hooks departments with free cameras, it can then entice departments into expensive, long-term contracts with storage costing cities millions of dollars each year.

As Wade Henderson of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights reminds us, "[f]ew things in life are truly free." Body-worn cameras are complicated new technologies, and without carefully crafted policy safeguards in place, it is the public that will bear the ultimate cost of these programs—both with their taxpayer dollars and with their rights.

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