Last week, Axon announced it is partnering with drone-maker DJI to sell surveillance drones to U.S. police departments through a program dubbed “Axon Air.” The Taser and body camera manufacturer will work with DJI to offer drones linked to Evidence.com, Axon’s proprietary cloud-based data management system. The footage recorded by Axon’s body cameras is handled via the Evidence.com system.
“DJI’s partnership with Axon allows law enforcement agencies to add drone capabilities and data services through the same trusted provider they rely on for the tools, data and support they need to do their jobs safely and effectively,” Michael Perry, Managing Director of North America at DJI, said in a press release. “DJI’s Axon Air partnership will strengthen and enhance law enforcement’s ability to protect public safety, respond to emergencies and save lives.”
Axon Air is already pitching its services online to law enforcement agencies, even suggesting the following uses:
- Search and rescue
- Traffic accident reconstruction
- Crowd monitoring
- Pursuits and building clearings
- Natural disaster responses
- Crime scene analysis
- Next generation evidence collection
Any of these suggested applications would draw suspicion from privacy scholars or civil liberties organisations. Drones are inexpensive, automated, and massively expand the surveillance capabilities of police. Naturally, Axon’s product page doesn’t present any of the potential drawbacks to police drone usage.
If the last few years are any indication, the actual use cases for these drones could be far more troubling. In Baltimore in the US state of Maryland, police piloted an infamous surveillance drone system that the public wasn’t aware of until the release of a Bloomberg report. In Kentucky, city officials explored connecting automated drones to gunshot detection devices, dispatching them to the location of gunfire throughout the city. While this would allow for faster “crime scene analysis,” the drones could potentially track fleeing suspects, raising concerns about what’s picked up in the surrounding environment.
Privacy scholars warn against letting police rake in and maintain enormous storehouses of data, but drones obviously take an aerial view that inevitably includes bystanders. It’s unclear if their anonymity will be protected, as that’s an individual policy decision not made my vendors.
Finally, in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel backed a bill that would permit police to use drones equipped with face recognition to surveil protestors. The local ACLU raised concerns that this would lead to a chilling effect on speech—people wouldn’t attend protests out of fear they’d be identified or targeted.
Nothing in the promotional materials suggests DJI drones have face recognition integrated, but Axon recently confirmed it has begun weighing the impact of embedding face recognition into its body cameras. Privacy advocates have warned such a capability would mean simply passing by a police officer could potentially constitute a form of surveillance or identity check. If drones are equipped with facial recognition, simply walking outside could do the same.
The current increase in automated law-enforcers has us worried RoboCop's British cousin could soon be policing the streets of the UK in the not-too-distant future.