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Axon adds license plate recognition to police dash cams, but heeds ethics board’s concerns

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Law enforcement tech outfitter Axon has announced that it will include automated license plate recognition in its next generation of dash cams. But its independent ethics board has simultaneously released a report warning of the dire consequences should this technology be deployed irresponsibly.

Axon makes body and dash cams for law enforcement, the platform on which that footage is stored (Evidence.com), and some of the weapons officers use (Taser, the name by which the company was originally known). Fleet 3 is the new model of dash cam, and by recognizing plate numbers will come with the ability to, for example, run requested plates without an officer having to type them in while driving.

The idea of including some kind of image recognition in these products has naturally occurred to them, and indeed there are many situations where law enforcement where such a thing would be useful; Automated icense plate recognition, or ALPR, is no exception. But the ethical issues involved in this and other forms of image analysis (identifying warrant targets based on body cam footage for instance) are many and serious.

In an effort to earnestly engage with these issues and also to not appear evil and arbitrary (as otherwise it might), Axon last year set up an independent advisory board that would be told of Axon’s plans and ideas and weigh in on them in official reports. Today they issued their second, on the usage of ALPR.

Although I’ll summarize a few of its main findings below, the report actually makes for very interesting reading. The team begins by admitting that there is very little information on how police actually use ALPR data, which makes it difficult to say whether it’s a net positive or negative, or whether this or that benefit or risk is currently in play.

That said, the very fact that ALPR use is largely undocumented is evidence in itself of negligence on the part of authorities to understand and limit the potential uses of this technology.

axon camera

“The unregulated use of ALPRs has exposed millions of people subject to surveillance by law enforcement, and the danger to our basic civil rights is only increasing as the technology is becoming more common,” said Barry Friedman, NYU law professor and member of the ethics board, in a press release. “It is incumbent on companies like Axon to ensure that ALPRs serve the communities who are subject to ALPR usage. This includes guardrails to ensure their use does not compromise civil liberties or worsen existing racial and socioeconomic disparities in the criminal justice system.”

You can see that the ethics board does not pull its punches. It makes a number of recommendations to Axon, and it should come as no surprise that transparency is at the head of them.

Law enforcement agencies should not acquire or use ALPRs without going through an open, transparent, democratic process, with adequate opportunity for genuinely representative public analysis, input, and objection.

Agencies should not deploy ALPRs without a clear use policy. That policy should be made public and should, at a minimum, address the concerns raised in this report.

Vendors, including Axon, should design ALPRs to facilitate transparency about their use, including by incorporating easy ways for agencies to share aggregate and de-identified data. Each agency then should share this data with the community it serves.

And let’s improve security too, please.

Interestingly the board also makes a suggestion on the part of conscientious objectors to the current draconian scheme of immigration enforcement: “Vendors, including Axon, must provide the option to turn off immigration-related alerts from the National Crime Information Center so that jurisdictions that choose not to participate in federal immigration enforcement can do so.”

There’s an aspect of state’s rights and plenty of other things wrapped up in that, but it’s a serious consideration these days. A system like this shouldn’t be a cat’s paw for the feds.

Axon, for its part, isn’t making any particularly specific promises, partly because the board’s recommendations reach beyond what it is capable of promising. But it did agree that the data collected by its systems will never be sold for commercial purposes. “We believe the data is owned by public safety agencies and the communities they serve, and should not be resold,” said Axon founder and CEO Rick Smith in the same press release.

I asked for Axon’s perspective on the numerous other suggestions made in the report. A company representative said that Axon appreciates the board’s “thoughtful guidance” and agrees with “their overall approach.” More specifically, the statement continued:

In the interest of transparency, both with our law enforcement customers and the communities they serve, we have announced this initiative approximately a year ahead of initial deployments of Axon Fleet 3. This time period will give us the opportunity to define best practices and a model framework for implementation through conversations with leading public safety and civil liberties groups and the Ethics Board. Prior to releasing the product, we will issue a specific and detailed outline of how we are implementing relevant safeguards including items such as data retention and ownership, and creating an ethical framework to help prevent misuse of the technology.

It’s good that this technology is being deployed amidst a discussion of these issues, but the ethics board isn’t The Board, and Axon (let alone its subordinate ethics team) can’t dictate public policy.

This technology is coming, and if the communities most impacted by it and things like it want to protect themselves, or if others want to ensure they are protected, the issues in the report should be carefully considered and brought up as a matter of policy with local governments. That’s where the recommended changes can really start to take root.

Axon Ethics Report 2 v2 by TechCrunch on Scribd

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The new AirFly Pro is the perfect travel buddy for your AirPods Pro

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Accessory maker TwelveSouth has a solid lineup of gadgets, many of which fill a niche that their products uniquely address – and address remarkably well. The AirFly Pro ($54.99) is a new iteration on one of those, providing a way to connect Bluetooth headphones to any audio source with a 3.5mm headphone jack. It’s being sold at Apple Stores, too, as part of its launch today – and there’s good reason for that: This is the ideal way to make sure you can use your AirPods Pro just about everywhere, including with airplane seatback entertainment systems.

The AirFly Pro will work with any Bluetooth headphones, not just AirPods Pro – but the latest noise cancelling earbuds from Apple are among the best available when it comes to both active noise cancellation and sound quality, both great assets for frequent travellers and people more likely to encounter an in-flight entertainment system. But the AirFly Pro has additional tricks up its sleeve that earn it the ‘Pro’ designation.

This is the first version of the product from TwelveSouth that offers the ability to stream audio in, as well as out. That means you can use it with a car stereo system that only access auxiliary audio-in, for instance, to stream directly from your iPhone to the vehicle’s sound system. The AirFly Pro can also serve that function for home stereo sound equipment, speakers or other audio equipment that accepts audio in, but not Bluetooth streaming connections.

One other neat trick the AirFly Pro packs: Audio sharing, so that you can connect two pairs of headphones at once. This is similar to the native audio sharing feature that Apple introduced for its own AirPod line in the most recent iOS update, but it works through the AirFly with any audio source, and any Bluetooth headphones. That’s yet another great feature for when you’re traveling with a partner.

I’ve had a bit of time to spend with the AirFly Pro, and so far it’s been rock solid, with easy pairing and set up, and a convenient keychain ring/3.5mm connector cap for making it easier to keep with you. It charges via USB-C, and there’s a USB-A to USB-C cable included, too. The on-board battery lasts for 16 or more hours, which is more than enough time for even the longest of flights, and again you’re getting that audio sharing feature which is super handy even around the house for just checking something out on the iPad on your couch.

Alongside the AirFly Pro, TwelveSouth also introduced new AirFly Duo and AirFly USB-C models. The difference is that neither of these offer that wireless audio input mode – but you get up to 4 more hours of battery life for the trade-off. The USB-C model also offers USB-C audio compatibility, for connecting to devices that use that connection for sound instead of 3.5mm, and both of these still also offer dual headphone connectivity, for $5 less at $49.99 each.

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Motorola throws back to the future with a foldable Razr reboot

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The rebirth of the Razr has been rumored for several months now. And honestly, such a product is a bit of a no-brainer. The Lenovo-owned company is embracing the burgeoning (if sputtering) world of foldables with the return of one of its most iconic models.

While it’s true that Motorola’s kept the Razr name alive in some form or another well into the Android era, everything that’s come since has failed to recapture the magic of the once mighty brand.

From the looks of things, however, the newly announced Razr is a lovely bit of symmetry. The product, which was announced earlier today in Los Angeles, leans into the lackluster criticism that foldables are simply a return of the once-ubiquitous clamshell design.

Motorola Razr

Motorola Razr

According to Motorola, the company has been toying around with flexible technology for some time now. Per a press release: “In 2015, a cross functional team, comprised of engineers and designers from both Motorola and Lenovo, was assembled to start thinking about how we could utilize flexible display technology.”

The device swaps the horizontal design of its best known competitor, the Samsung Galaxy Fold. The vertical form factor looks to be a match made in foldable heaven. Certainly it loses some of the uber-thin design that made the original Razr such a hit so many years back, but makes the ultra-wide (21:9) 6.2-inch screen compact enough to fit in a pocket.

As with the Galaxy Fold, there’s another a small display on the front for getting a glimpse of notifications and the like. It’s another design feature that mirrors the O.G. Razr. Predictably, the device runs Android — Android 9 (for now), to be precise.

For full throwback appeal, there’s also a “Retro Razr” mode, that mimics the original metallic button design for the bottom half of the screen. It’s a skin that does, indeed, double as a number pad, usable with Android messaging app. Motorola clearly put a lot of love into the design and it shows. If nothing else, the new Razr could go a ways toward proving that retro handsets can be more than just nostalgic novelty for bygone tech.

After the whole Samsung kerfuffle, you’d be right to question the device’s durability, though Motorola says it’s less concerned, citing an “average” smartphone timespan for the product. Only one way, to find out, I guess. Also like the Fold, price is a pretty big obstacle to any sort of mainstream adoption for this first-gen product. The Razr will run $1,499 when it launches in January of next year.

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Apple’s Mac Pro ships in December with maximum 8TB of storage

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Apple is making its Mac Pro and Apple Pro Display available in December, it announced today. The machine was announced earlier this year but no availability window had been set.

In addition to the previously announced specs, Apple also noted that it would be able to be ordered with up to an 8TB SSD. Apple’s Pro Workflow Team continues to take feedback about wants and needs of its pro customers and Apple says that the MacBook Pro can now handle up to 6 streams of 8K Pro Res vide, up from 3 streams quoted back in June. 

Apple also says that Blackmagic will have an SDI to 8K converter for productions using a serial digital interface workflow on set or in studio. This was a question I got several times after Apple announced its reference monitor to go along with the Mac Pro. This makes it more viable for many on-set applications that use existing workflows. 

I was able to get a look at the Mac Pro running the SDI converter box as well as a bunch of other applications like Final Cut Pro and it continues to be incredibly impressive for pro workflows. One demo showed 6 8K Pro Res streams running with animation and color coding in real time in a pre-rendered state. Really impressive. The hardware is also still wildly premium stuff. The VESA mount for the Pro Display XDR alone feels like it has more engineering behind it than most entire computers.

The new Mac Pro starts at $5,999 for tis base configuration, which includes 32GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and a Radeon Pro 570X graphics card, and the Pro Display XDR 32-inch reference quality monitor that Apple will sell alongside it starts at $4,999.

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