CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article claimed the entire ethics board resigned. In actuality, 9 out of 13 members quit. We regret the error.
Last week, the CEO of the company that makes Tasers, Axon, announced his plan to move forward with producing AI-assisted drones armed with stun guns to “address mass shootings.” Aside from the obvious questions like: “How would the drones handle closed doors?” and “What the absolute fuck is wrong with you, my guy?” news quickly surfaced that Axon’s ethics advisory board overwhelmingly voted to caution against CEO Rick Smith’s idea just last month, going so far as to warn against even a limited pilot program — the implication being that Smith is exploiting the latest wave of preventable American tragedies to further profit from expanding our panopticon state.
Unnamed sources hinted on Friday to NBC News at the possibility of mass resignations from the ethics board, a hint that just became very much a reality. In fact, 9 out 13 board members announced its resignations earlier today in a scathing open letter published via the NYU School of Law’s Policing Project.
A long time coming — The ethics board’s letter is a fascinating, if incredibly disheartening, look into the history of their attempts — some successful, many others not — to help steer “non-lethal” security technology towards the safest, sensible outcomes. “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,” they write. “For a time, we saw that influence play out in some of Axon’s decisions.”
The board also lays out the timeline of CEO Rick Smith’s genius flying cattle prod invention, their vehement cautioning against pursuing such a device, and the latest, drastic expansion on the idea.
Exploiting tragedy — For years, members of the board repeatedly warned Axon against expanding police surveillance tech such as facial recognition and social media data scraping, citing the overwhelming evidence that such products disproportionately harm BIPOC communities. What’s more, they revealed that Smith’s initial Taser drone proposal was to be used “only in situations in which it might avoid a police officer using a firearm, thereby potentially saving a life.” At no point in that process was it put forward that the product be pre-installed in public spaces and schools, and nowhere did it suggest idea of real-time surveillance feeds directly sent to law enforcement stations.
“Before Axon’s announcement, we pleaded with the company to pull back. But the company charged ahead in a way that struck many of us as trading on the tragedy of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings,” the statement reads.
Sadly, the board’s mass resignation doesn’t change the fact that Axon still appears intent on moving forward with producing their dystopian police toys. Companies like Axon tend to listen to the advice of potential profits, regardless of the potential damage inflicted on an already deeply wounded society.