A company that developed a massive database for police body cameras has joined forces with the world’s biggest manufacturer of consumer unmanned aerial vehicles to sell surveillance drones to police departments. The data storage and sharing capabilities along with the development of artificial intelligence (AI) applications create the potential for an invasive surveillance platform that would make Big Brother drool. 

Axon sells police body cameras and Tasers. It also developed a cloud-based data storage system called Evidence.com for police video, audio and other digital information. Axon has teamed up with China-based drone manufacturer DJI to sell a line of drones dubbed “Azon Air.” The video camera-equipped drones can upload data directly to the cloud for instant analysis.

According to Axon, more than 200,000 public safety professionals currently use Evidence.com. The system was originally developed to store and process body camera video, but it has expanded into a large-scale police data storage system. Through Evidence.com, law enforcement agencies can instantly analyze, categorize and share reams of raw data. A company spokesperson told Slate, “all digital data including PDFs, crime scene photos, CCTV footage, in-car cameras, and now DJI drone video can be associated to a single case file.”

Police departments own and maintain control of all the data they upload into the system, but they can easily share information with other agencies. In effect, Evidence.com creates a privately owned, centralized system that state, local and federal law enforcement agencies can all tap into and share information. For example, police in Phoenix could share a video with officers in Boston, or the FBI could access drone footage shot in Montgomery, Ala., all with just a few clicks of a mouse.

As Slate put it, “By combining drone that’s easy to fly, body-camera, police-car-camera, and closed-circuit-TV footage, Axon is clearly hoping to create a central hub for police to cross-reference and access surveillance data—a treasure chest of information.”

The threat to privacy becomes more acute when you factor in facial recognition and AI technology. According to Slate, Axon CEO Rick Smith recently said his company is actively considering using facial recognition with its camera technology. And as Defense One reports, footage captured by Axon drones could be instantly analyzed by AI systems not revealed to the public.

A paper, titled “Eye in the Sky,” details how drone footage could be used to detect “violent individuals” in real-time.


But critics question the accuracy of these AI algorithms, according to Defense One:

To train the AI, the researchers flew a drone to snap 2,000 images of people pretending to hurt each other. But since the researchers didn’t use real data, and carefully staged the information the AI analyzed to learn the difference between violence and normal human motion, there’s no guarantee that it would work well in the real world, David Sumpter, author of Outnumbered: Exploring the Algorithms that Control Our Liveswrote on Medium.

“What the algorithm has done is classify individuals with their hands or legs in the air as violent,” Sumpter wrote. Others, like Google ethics hawk Meredith Whittaker, tweeted that the research was flawed and that “AI is facing a mounting ethical crisis.”

ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley said he was particularly concerned about police being able to surveil wide areas such as outdoor gatherings, neighborhoods or even entire cities.

“It could give police the ability to hit rewind on people’s lives and see anywhere they’ve been,” he said.

The proliferation of surveillance drones instantly linked to massive databases connected to facial recognition and AI technology underscores the need for state and local government to put careful limits on drone surveillance. Police should not be able to deploy drones to gather evidence without a warrant. Additionally, state and local government should put tight limits on data-sharing and storage.


According to a report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, drones can be equipped with various types of surveillance equipment that can collect high definition video and still images day and night. Drones can be equipped with technology allowing them to intercept cell phone calls, determine GPS locations, and gather license plate information. Drones can be used to determine whether individuals are carrying guns. Synthetic-aperture radar can identify changes in the landscape, such as footprints and tire tracks. Some drones are even equipped with facial recognition. According to research from the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, 347 U.S. police, sheriff, fire, and emergency response units acquired drones between 2009 and early 2017—primarily sheriff’s offices and local police departments.

Much of the funding for drones at the state and local level comes from the federal government, in and of itself a constitutional violation. In return, federal agencies tap into the information gathered by state and local law enforcement through fusion centers and a federal program known as the information sharing environment.

According to its website, the ISE “provides analysts, operators, and investigators with information needed to enhance national security. These analysts, operators, and investigators… have mission needs to collaborate and share information with each other and with private sector partners and our foreign allies.” In other words, ISE serves as a conduit for the sharing of information gathered without a warrant. Axons Evidence.com system is almost certainly already integrated into this system.

The federal government encourages and funds a network of drones at the state and local level across the U.S., thereby gaining access to a massive data pool on Americans without having to expend the resources to collect the information itself. By placing restrictions on drone use, state and local governments limit the data available that the feds can access.

Currently, 18 states—Alaska, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maine, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin—require law enforcement agencies in certain circumstances to obtain a search warrant to use drones for surveillance or to conduct a search.

In a nutshell, without state and local cooperation, the feds have a much more difficult time gathering information. This represents a major blow to the surveillance state and a win for privacy.

Mike Maharrey

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