Axon ethics board members resign over taser-equipped drone

Axon wanted to place drones in schools and public places to prevent mass shootings. Resigning AI ethics board members saw that move as weaponizing drones and possibly leading to "AI-powered persistent surveillance."
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Taser maker Axon is walking back plans to make a taser-equipped drone after nine members of its AI Ethics board resigned. Axon, a technology company known for developing tasers and products for police and the military, wanted to market the product as a means of stopping mass shootings. 

Pushback from the ethics AI Ethics board was swift and forceful. 

"We all feel the desperate need to do something to address our epidemic of mass shootings. But Axon's proposal to elevate a tech-and-policing response when there are far less harmful alternatives, is not the solution," read a statement from the resigning board members.

This has been a year in the making. Axon brought the armed drone idea to the ethics board and was met with concerns over how the system could be misused. The original idea was to deploy the drone to target active shooters, but there would be little stopping agencies to utilize the drone in other capacities. The ethics board recognized this and drew the line. 

"We wish it had not come to this. 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. Our insistence to Axon that the community, and not the police, should be the company's ultimate customers led Axon to establish the Community Advisory Coalition, a group which brings together community leaders to share perspectives on Axon's products and services."

But the resigning members were discouraged more recently by the decision to proceed to develop the drone system.

"Only a few weeks ago, a majority of this Board—by an 8-4 vote—recommended that Axon not proceed with a narrow pilot study aimed at vetting the company's concept of Taser-equipped drones. In that limited conception, the Taser-equipped drone was to be used only in situations in which it might avoid a police officer using a firearm, thereby potentially saving a life. We understood the company might proceed despite our recommendation not to, and so we were firm about the sorts of controls that would be needed to conduct a responsible pilot should the company proceed. We just were beginning to produce a public report on Axon's proposal and our deliberations."

Things didn't go as planned.

"None of us expected the announcement from Axon last Thursday, June 2 regarding a very different use case. That announcement—that the company's goal is to entrench countless pre-positioned, Taser-equipped drones in a variety of schools and public places, to be activated in response to AI-powered persistent surveillance—leads us to conclude that after several years of work, the company has fundamentally failed to embrace the values that we have tried to instill."

Weaponized drones and drone surveillance are deeply controversial. Concerns over excessive use of force by police officers have led the ACLU and others to take a strong stance against weaponized drones, while privacy advocates fear the implications of widespread drone surveillance by government agencies. 

Axon has walked back the scheme for now, but it's likely we'll see more companies in this space in the future, setting up similar showdowns.

Editorial standards