Axon, the company formerly known as Taser, either wants to encourage helpful citizens or snitches—depending on how you feel about talking to police—to come forward.
On Thursday, the company announced "Axon Citizen," a new "public safety portal" that lets civilians submit text, video, and audio files directly to participating law enforcement agencies that uses its cloud storage service, Evidence.com.
The company, which already is the largest provider of body-worn cameras and associated storage to American law enforcement agencies, said in a press release that submitted data "goes straight into Evidence.com, so community members do not need to hand their phones over to police. The direct upload to Evidence.com eliminates any need for officers to download, print, and transfer data to a USB drive and physically place it inside an evidence locker at the agency."
Axon did not say which cities currently have or will have this upgrade, but it did note that some law enforcement agency customers currently have access to the "one-on-one tool." All American police organizations that use Evidence.com Pro, Ultimate, or Unlimited licensing will have the tool later this year at no additional cost.
Sid Heal, a retired commander at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, told Ars that he thought Axon Citizen would be a "game-changer if successful."
Heal, who is now the president of the California Association of Tactical Officers, noted that current investigations that typically seek the public's help are often "tedious" and "laborious" when the time comes to combine that help with existing information.
"This right here is the next step up from that; it makes it technologically feasible," he said. "I don't think people realize how expensive it is to do an investigation. If it saves us just one hour on a case, it could save anywhere from $80 to $150 an hour; you multiply that by the numbers of cases or the number of detectives, you can quickly see how this can mount up."
However, at least one legal scholar noted that there may be lingering privacy concerns.
Rachel Levinson-Waldman, an attorney with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School, told Ars that in recent years, as body-worn cameras have become more prevalent, they have not significantly mitigated police misconduct.
"Instead [they have] been used largely as a tool for gathering evidence while inhibiting transparency and accountability when officers fail to activate them or use them improperly," she said. "This appears to be the next step—a technology that the community has not been asking for, which Axon developed in order to bolster its own business model and bottom line. The economic interests of technology companies should not be driving policing and community policy."
She also noted that Axon has not provided any information as to how long the submitted data is retained by the agency or how it might be combined with other information later on.
"Will either Axon or the individual agency be pulling out data that’s unrelated to the particular event being reported, whether it's license plate data in the background or individuals tagged down the line by facial recognition software? Will they be mined for leads for other crimes? The press release says that information can only be uploaded if it relates to a crime under investigation, but there is little to no transparency on these questions about downstream use."