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Most of Axon's Ethics Board Resigns to Protest Drone Plans

In response to several mass shootings, the company announced that it was working on drones armed with Tasers to stop shooters. Now that work is paused after most of the company's ethics board resigned in protest.

Axon headquarters
Nine out of 12 members of Axon’s ethics board — an independent group of experts and advocates it convened to help identify potential problems with new technology before deploying it — have resigned in protest of the company’s idea to equip drones with stun guns.

The company’s idea came up in a blog post June 2 from the company’s CEO, Rick Smith, amid a string of mass shootings including the killing of 19 children and two teachers at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, as well as the murder of 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y. In the post, Smith said Axon had formally begun work on a drone equipped with the company’s Taser technology that could potentially respond quickly and non-lethally to stop a shooter.

Four days later, the majority of the company’s ethics board resigned, posting a public letter calling the company’s idea “distracting society from real solutions to a tragic problem” and “trading on the tragedy of the Uvalde and Buffalo shootings.”

In a response, Smith acknowledged that the company had brought up the idea sooner than it otherwise would have because of the shootings, but insisted that the technology was years away and without a solid timeline.

He also said that in response to feedback, the company was pausing work on the idea.

“We have a lot of work and exploring to see if this technology is even viable and to understand if the public concerns can be adequately addressed before moving forward,” Smith wrote. “Pursuing an extended research path is just one element of getting this right.”

The ethics board members said the technology would involve more than just drones, but mass deployment of surveillance cameras, leading to “persistent surveillance.” Such surveillance technologies, such as automatic license plate-reading cameras, have often been deployed more heavily in areas with a higher concentration of low-income people and racial minorities, leading to criticism from civil rights advocates.

“This type of surveillance undoubtedly will harm communities of color and others who are overpoliced, and likely well beyond that,” the board members wrote.

The board also said that none of its members expected Axon’s announcement and felt the company was bypassing the board despite committing to consulting it.

An Axon spokesperson confirmed that the board is still remaining with its active members. In his response, Smith stated that the company was committed to gathering feedback.

“It is unfortunate that some members of Axon’s ethics advisory panel have chosen to withdraw from directly engaging on these issues before we heard or had a chance to address their technical questions,” he wrote. “We respect their choice and will continue to seek diverse perspectives to challenge our thinking and help guide other technology options that we should be considering.”

The board members acknowledged in their statement that the company had listened to them on many occasions and changed course based on their input. That included the decision to step away from using facial recognition, stop pursuing plans to gather data from social media and to promote legislation regulating license plate cameras.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a response from an Axon spokesperson.