On Thursday, The Intercept published a leaked survey in which body camera manufacturer Axon (the company formerly known as Taser) discussed a new software platform permitting citizens to submit their own photo and video evidence to its private cloud storage property, Evidence.com.
While the purpose of the survey was reportedly to gather naming ideas from law enforcement officials, the document also contained revealing details about the previously undisclosed platform. From a product description included in The Intercept’s report:
At Axon, we are developing a product that allows the public to submit photos and video of a crime, suspicious activity, or event. The collection of evidence will be done via a citizens’ smartphone or computer and submitted via a text or uploaded via webpage to the appropriate law enforcement agency. This video or picture will then be automatically added to your evidence management platform, Evidence.com, for use by the agency in solving a crime or gathering a fuller point of view from the public.
In a comment to The Intercept, the company emphasized the “Public Evidence Product” is intended to “help solve crimes or respond to incidents that impact public safety.” Axon hasn’t given any timeline on when it will be released, but said the platform would be publicly announced soon.
Body cameras are a large part of police reformation efforts, though civil rights advocates have argued they instead erode personal privacy. Gizmodo has covered the difficulties of creating body camera policies that match the tremendous surveillance capabilities rolling out with each new iteration of body camera software. How does deputizing citizens as “smartphone informants”(as The Intercept put it) increase officer transparency or accountability? It doesn’t.
In a best case scenario, this platform could allow people report crimes they’d otherwise be afraid to call the police about. An hourly employee working for a major corporation may soon have a way to document abuses they otherwise couldn’t without drawing attention to themselves. But will the data be anonymized and will metadata identifying the uploader be scrubbed? What if the persons recorded are innocent of wrongdoing? Will the footage still be retained by Axon, even if citizens are never formally suspected of anything or charged? We have reached out to the company for comment and will update this story if and when we hear back.
Another question: Who owns footage uploaded by citizens? Police departments are rarely required to relinquish footage to the public and, in places like North Carolina and Louisiana, body camera footage is exempt from public records requests. But that’s just when it’s in police hands. Axon owns Evidence.com, where the citizen uploads would be hosted, and has previously asserted their rights to footage stored on the site. In May, California public defender Rick Horowitz raised concerns of ownership after being asked to sign a licensing agreement with Axon to access footage of his own client before trial.
Mediating justice through a private company, even though public funds pay for both officers and the equipment they use, insulates police from public accountability and makes it harder for communities to see and scrutinize footage for themselves.
Functionally, the Public Evidence Product is the same as “See Something, Say Something,” the anonymous tipline in New York City that crowdsources information from the public. But “See Something” is rife with misinformation. The tips recorded are subjective and based on people’s biases—Muslims have been reported to the tipline for innocuous behavior simply because the public is primed to see their behavior as suspicious. Axon’s latest invention could easily become a secondary, crowdsourced form of racialized surveillance.
Ultimately, the problem with the Public Evidence Product is scale. A citizen surveillance network could increase the investigative power of police many times over, but without the corresponding increase in accountability, transparency or community authority. It’s very clear why Axon would want this, and why they want police departments to want this, but not why communities, desperate for any indication of progress in the ongoing police reform conversation, would want this.
Update: 9/22/17 4pm ET: Gizmodo spoke with Steve Tuttle, Axon Spokesperson and VP of Strategic Communication, to clarify the nature of the Public Evidence Product. Tuttle reiterated he was unable to provide specifics because the product still hasn’t been released, but emphasized that videos would be locally stored and subject to agency policies.
“Once they’re [uploaded] to Evidence.com, they don’t go to Taser,” he told Gizmodo via phone call. “They don’t go to Axon. They go to a specific file within Evidence.com at the agency. The agency owns the data. From public submissions to body warn cameras, all evidence is going to go to that department’s Evidence.com, which is secure for them. We’re not vetting information, we’re not reviewing it. It goes to them specifically. You’d have to FOIA the agency [for it] because they own the evidence.”
Tuttle challenges claims of data privatization or third-party mediation, going on to explain that the submissions will have audit trails, which save an original copy of all videos and logs when anyone tries to edit, delete, view, or make copies of footage. Because some of the uploaded videos could be of police misconduct, he says the “Public Evidence Product” has the potential to augment communities’ abilities to hold police accountable.
Questions still remain, however. Tuttle says the “Public Evidence Product” won’t function as a dragnet, but is instead “specifically to get specific evidence from specific incidents.” Tuttle wouldn’t elaborate on any cases in which officers would use the “Public Evidence Product,” how they would solicit submissions from citizens, what types of evidences officers would use, or which crimes the product is best suited to solve. Tuttle said those details will be revealed as the product is finalized and released.