Axon Hits Pause on ‘Dystopian’ Taser Drone Project Following Ethics Board’s Mass Resignations

Axon Hits Pause on ‘Dystopian’ Taser Drone Project Following Ethics Board’s Mass Resignations

Axon’s controversial and short-lived Taser Drone project is powering down…for now.

The company’s CEO announced the company is “pausing” the development of the drones following immense backlash from the public, civil liberty groups, privacy advocates, and a majority of the company’s own independent AI ethics board. The pause comes less than four days after Axon officially announced interest in developing the drones.

In his blog post, Rick Smith said his, “passion for finding new solutions to stop mass shootings,” led the company to move too quickly. The drone concept, which came weeks after a pair of horrific mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York, was pitched as a possible solution to incapacitate an active shooter in “less than 60 seconds.” Civil liberties experts spoke out against the technology, warning Gizmodo it could actually make school more dangerous for children and presented potential nightmare scenarios where the drones could be used to punish political protestors. Nine of the 12 members of Axon’s independent AI Ethics and Advisory Board have resigned over Axon’s decision to pursue the drone against their recommendation.

“We value the feedback we received following our announcement,” Smith wrote. “We don’t have all the answers, but we will listen and learn so that we can fulfil our mission to protect life, together.”

Smith, who hosted a contentious Reddit Ask Me Anything session on Friday to discuss the drone concept, said the idea had yet to reach the “product” stage, adding the company was still working to determine if the “technology is even viable.”

Albert Fox Cahn, the Executive Director of The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project who spoke critically of the program last week, told Gizmodo he was glad to see Axon pause the project, but expressed concern it ever got off the ground in the first place.

“I’m glad they’re [Axon] grounding this proposal for now, but I’m disturbed it ever got off the ground,” Fox Cahn said. “These dystopian drones were more than a flight of fancy, they could have been a deadly mistake. Only someone who’s completely lost touch with reality would think that the American people would want these knock-off Terminators in our schools.”

Fox Cahn pointed to the recent case of an English man who reportedly died over the weekend after being shot by a police Taser as further evidence of the potential dangers inherent in Axon’s project. “I also question how anyone can continue to work with this company on ethics in good faith,” Fox Cahn added. While Axon often refers to Tasers as “non-lethal” weapons in its marketing material, research shows Tasers have led to the deaths of at least 500 people since 2010.

Others, like American Civil Liberties Union Senior Staff Attorney Carl Takei, said it was concerning such large public pushback was needed to facilitate the pause.

“It’s deeply unfortunate that it took a massive public outcry, and the resignation of most of the company’s AI Ethics Board, before Axon finally decided it was ‘pausing work’ on its plan to begin selling taser-equipped drones,” Takei told Gizmodo. “This proposal should never have made it outside the C-suite, let alone making it to a Reddit AMA where Axon’s CEO mused about installing weaponised drones in classrooms like ‘sprinklers and other fire suppression tools.’”

Axon’s AI Ethics Board Members Resign en Mass

Gizmodo spoke with The Policing Project Staff Attorney Max Isaacs, who represents members of Axon’s AI Ethics and Advisory Board and was responsible for staffing members of the company’s advisory board. Isaacs said the board was “blindsided” by the company’s decision to move forward with the drone announcement despite voicing numerous ethical concerns. Though Smith revealed the drone concept as a tool intended to be used as a type of deployable surveillance solution to thwart school shooters, Isaacs says the board was presented with a very different use case.

“The context was much different,” Isaacs said. According to Isaacs, board members were under the impression the drone, which had been discussed for over a year, would be carried by police in the back of their cruisers. “The board simply didn’t consider this idea of a permanently stationed drone in elementary schools with persistent mass surveillance in schools and in classrooms,” Isaacs said. “That is not what the board understood the primary use case to be.”

Isaacs described a “significant gap” between what the board was consulted on and what Axon announced. As of Monday morning, nine of the board’s 12 members resigned in protest.

“There was a process problem here,” Isaacs added. “Board members felt that Axon was acting recklessly in not consulting with them and by proceeding with the announcement before they had addressed any of the board’s concerns.” Foremost amongst the board’s many concerns, Isaac’s said, was a question of how Axon could ensure a Taser drone wouldn’t be used in an irresponsible way by policing agencies.

The timing of Smith’s drone reveal marked a point of concern as well. According to Isaacs, multiple board members felt Smith was trying to “leverage” the recent tragedies in Uvalde and Buffalo and saw them as a window to announce a product when the public was more receptive to school shooting solutions. “In fact I believe Rick’s own statements have alluded to the fact that Uvalde and Buffalo compelled him to make the announcement when he did,” Isaacs said.

In his Ask Me Anything session last week, Smith said he, “could not sit idly by and allow the conversation [around school shootings] to happen only internally at Axon.”

Axon declined to comment on the board’s resignation and pointed Gizmodo to Smith’s recent statements. There, Smith said it was “unfortunate” that board members had decided to resign before the company had a chance to address their concerns.

“We respect their choice and will continue to seek diverse perspectives to challenge our thinking and help guide other technology options that we should be considering.”

When asked if he was concerned if Axon would fill the resigned board members’ roles with experts less critical of police technology, Isaacs said that while that’s a possibility, it’s important to keep in mind the ethics board’s roles as a “stop-gap” measure more generally.

“Our position has always been that ethics boards, in general, are second best,” Isaacs said. “Policing tech is profoundly under-regulated and that is why it’s important for vendors to develop these products responsibly.”

But at the same time, Isaacs says that reliance on private firms to act in the public’s interest is an imperfect solution.

“We shouldn’t be relying on ethics boards to ensure that policing tech is developed responsibly,” he added. It shouldn’t be up to the company to decide these important issues that have profound consequences for society. What is urgently needed is more public regulation of policing tech.”