‘Don’t Datamine Me Bro’ – Taser, Axon, Skynet? (Part III)

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Axon the company that was once Taser is just that a company – a corporate entity. Yet, its cloud holds police data which as far as I understand is subject to public interest and access. Whether or not the data is actually ‘public’ is a question that I do not have the time to research.

Fortunately, that’s a variable that isn’t indispensable to the problem domain currently under discussion. The outsourcing of data to a corporate entity by public servants is one that should cause concern. While it maybe an inevitability this practice must be subject to intense scrutiny and the construction of legal structures.

Axon has a very cozy relationship with many departments. Which is not in and of itself necessarily a bad thing. But, it does raise the age-old problem of the merging of state and corporate power. A problem that in its purest manifestation is called fascism.

I do not use this term lightly. Nor do I wield it as some sort of moralist bludgeon. The merging of state and corporate power when fully realized is the definition of fascism.

I am not a purist. I do not think that simply because the police is and may to a greater degree in the future become reliant on Axon’s databases – that this necessarily implies fascism. Databasing and weapons manufacture are not the chief province of policing. It is entirely acceptable for some level of delegation to occur.

So what we have here is a question of degree. How completely is policing going to become reliant on cloud storage, AI, and the companies that provide such solutions? As it stands in this honeymoon period the relationship is symbiotic. Will it remain so?

The history of many a company is marked by monopolistic yearnings. While I have not seen evidence of any egregious steps by Axon in this direction, there are some examples of corporate zeal.

One such example is Axon’s insistence that its systems are adopted by the largest departments. An insistence that they have pursued to the best of their abilities.

VieVue, Axon’s competitor won the bid for New York Police Department in 2016. Axon took some rather aggressive steps to wrest control.

“According to Politico, Taser, in an effort to thwart the agreement, hired a lobbyist to spread anxiety among the black clergy in New York about the effectiveness of VieVue cameras and petitioned the public advocate, in what Mayor Bill de Blasio described as a smear campaign; it also offered to give New York a thousand free Axon cameras. (The department declined.)” – Dana Goodyear – Shock to the System – The New Yorker Magazine (August 27th 2018) – [Page 42]

The reason for these tactics goes beyond fattening Axon’s bottom line. NYPD records “represent a critical node in Axon’s nervous system.” This desire for data is understandable for a company whose business model depends on the acquisition and processing of information.

“With New York, Chicago, L.A., and a majority of the other largest cities in the country using Axon’s cameras and data storage, the company can design the ways that evidence is collected, held, and shared – in systems that the public can’t opt out of.” — Dana Goodyear – Shock to the System – The New Yorker Magazine (August 27th, 2018) – [Page 42]

I boldened the statement – in systems that the public can’t opt out of – because it is indicative of a monopolistic trend. Whether it is a defacto monopoly like Google and Facebook, one that emerged due to overwhelming adoption, or it is the result of a naked pursuit for hegemony – it remains troubling.

Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, and Google are notorious for profiting off of user data in rather unsavory, privacy thwarting, legally questionable ways. Whether or not Axon will follow suit is uncertain.

What is certain is that Axon acquired VieVue this past spring. Something that in my opinion gives it monopoly status. A company whose bread and butter is information that holds enormous influence over the fates of millions of American citizens becoming monopolistic borders on the Orwellian. It is why I chose to call this series Taser, Axon, Skynet in reference to the dystopian world portrayed in the Terminator movies.

Some may be confused by my earlier assertion that there have been no egregious steps by Axon towards hegemony. How can I say that and only a few paragraphs later call the company a monopoly?

The reason is that Axon is a defacto monopoly. In order to build efficient systems, it must make every possible stride to get its hands on the materials that would allow this. In this case, those materials are things like NYPD contracts and the data generated from such contracts. We all want to assure that the best, most efficient, most honest systems are implemented by departments. Thus a monopoly may be an inevitability.

Some have proposed that we regulate Facebook and Google in the same way we regulate public utilities. That discussion is beyond the scope of this article. The regulation of companies as utilities argument is here mentioned because a defacto monopoly like Axon that deals in highly sensitive criminal justice information is a prime candidate for such regulation.

I do not know whether or not I will continue this article but there are many, many more matters of interest, and importance surrounding these advances in policing solutions.

Feel free to share your thoughts below, stay tuned, and as always thanks for reading.

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