“Already a couple of years ago, before the privacy authorities raised doubts, our Ethics Committee had assessed that there were no prerequisites and indeed there were risks of malicious use”: who speaks is Loris Angeloni, CEO of Axon Italia, and what he talks about is the face recognition technology that the company could use for the bodycam adopted by 18 thousand police departments around the world. Could use, but decided not to use.
Angeloni told us these things at Italian Tech a few days before the European Parliament clearly declared its “no” to the use of artificial intelligence for surveillance mass made by the police and the fact that he told us is important because, even if few know it, until 2017 the company he works for was called Taser. It is headquartered in Scottsdale, in the US state of Arizona, and was so called because its founders, brothers Patrick and Tom Smith, are the ones who invented it, the taser.
Above all, it is important because Axon, which has 2,000 employees in the US and another 350 in the rest of the world, of which about a hundred in Europe, practically has a monopoly on law enforcement, as it supplies its devices to law enforcement agents. over 100 countries in the world. And since last July, Italy has also been among these countries.
The inventor of the taser between Black Lives Matter, empathy and artificial intelligence. Also in Italy
What Axon does in Italy
In reality, it was there even before, but only on an experimental basis (the tests had begun in 2014, with the so-called Stadi decree of Minister Alfano). Now no, now it’s official, why Axon won the European tender to supply the state police, carabinieri and financial police with tasers: “Italy bought 4,500, together with the necessary cartridges and contracts for assistance, maintenance and training services”, explained Loris Angeloni, CEO of Axon Italia, in a long and interesting video chat.
So the Italian policemen (and the carabinieri and the financiers) already go around with the taser on their belt? Not yet: “A first phase of the training is over, but actual use will begin in the second half of November”, Angeloni told us again. Because? “Because the agents to be trained are many, about 250 thousand people, including those of the Penitentiary (which, however, are currently excluded from the supply, ed)”.
Axon’s commitment in our country is not limited to this: the company provides its bodycam, software and access to site where the images are stored (it’s called evidence.com) to many private surveillance bodies and above all to 150 municipal police headquarters; not only that: the tasers have also been purchased from traffic police of Ravenna, Venice and Udine. Angeloni told us that “the Ministry of the Interior has also shown interest in these devices (the bodycam, ed), but for regulatory reasons they could not be included in the same tender. But it is possible that we will talk about it at a later time ”.
Bodycam, drones and AI: the police become hi-tech
In its catalog, Axon has many devices that can be useful to law enforcement, in addition to the well-known stun gun: there are also drones to be used for patrols from above, but the bodycam, worn by agents before going into action, are certainly the most interesting from a technological point of view.
The latest version, called Body 3, is equipped with artificial intelligence, is able to activate autonomously if it hears the sound of a shot, recognizes objects and people and also has the function text-to-speech, that is, it can transcribe in text form, as if they were notes, the conversations heard by the policeman wearing it. It would also be able to recognize faces, so as to understand if the face of the framed person is included in some database of wanted or affected persons, but it still does not: “In tests, our face recognition algorithm it proved to be more accurate and precise than what Facebook uses to suggest tags in the photos – Angeloni explained to us – But we decided not to use it ”. Not yet, as we have seen: “We use it for the categorization of the shots (to understand if in the video you see the scene of a murder, a car accident, a robbery and so on, ed) and for the quick count of people in a room“; with a few more advantages: “Our AI is able to automatically darken faces, hide the color of the skin of those who are framed and also objects considered sensitive”. It is used, for example, for all those occasions in which there is a need to make a film public, without however divulging the identity of the people framed.
Another particularly advanced device is the Fleet 3 camera, used on American police cars from the end of 2020 and soon also arriving in Italy: “The artificial intelligence it is equipped with allows it to read the license plates of the vehicles it encounters by itself, to compare them with those present in the databases of the police and to warn human colleagues of the presence of a match “. In Europe it is not yet used, also because it is necessary to train the algorithms to recognize the different number plates of the EU countries, which is a rather long process: for the first release, Axon acquired two specialist companies in 2017 in this type of operation and it took a couple of years for the Fleet 3 to be ready for use.
In electronic warfare, the boundary between game and reality is increasingly blurred
by Andrea Monti
Training with virtual reality and the case of Minneapolis
As well as the devices, and perhaps even more, it is important that agents are also trained and trained in the use of these new technologies. Especially to avoid what happened last April in Minneapolis, in the US state of Minnesota, where an officer drew his gun believing he was taking out the taser, fired and killed a young African American: “Training is essential – Angeloni confirmed – but in the US there is also a social problem of ease of access to firearms, which increases the likelihood of agents being having to face armed people “. This has consequences on the so-called rules of engagement: “In Europe there is talk of stopping the threat with a proportionate reaction to it, in the US of just stopping the threat, at any cost”. In short, in the United States it is likely that the first instinct of a law enforcement representative is to draw a weapon, something that does not happen in Europe, or much less: “For avoid cases like the one in Minneapolis – Angeloni told us again – the advice given by Axon to the agents is to keep the taser and the gun on two different sides of the body, even at two different heights, so as to reduce the risk of confusion, because to extract one or the other two completely different gestures have to be made ”.
Therefore, when countries buy a supply of stun guns, they also buy a package of training sessions. The most advanced version is what the company calls Empathy Training: “Since October 2018 we have been using virtual reality viewers (the Oculus Go, ed) to allow agents to understand how to deal with the most difficult situations, even putting themselves in the shoes of the person in crisis – Angeloni explained to us last year – the first scenario we created allowed us to simulate interactions with people affected by schizophrenia, then we added others that allow us to deal with people with autism and those who threaten suicide “. Using the virtual reality, the idea is to ensure that the policeman can see the situation from his point of view and also from that of those he is facing: “In the United States we also do it with our Vr Trucks, trucks made in collaboration with Htc that allow us to reach the police stations with all the equipment necessary to set up a training room in virtual reality. We are considering doing something like this in Europe too, perhaps even in Italy ”.
Eliminate firearms within 10 years
The purpose is twofold: to save lives and also to reduce (or eliminate) the use of firearms, because Axon’s intention, repeated several times by its CEO, is that of “having only non-lethal weapons within the next 10 years”. As for saving lives and the contribution of the tasers in this regard, Axon’s stats (the source of the data is this pdf) say that in the last decade or so the stun gun has been used over 4.3 million times around the world and in the United States alone it would have saved over 235,000 people from serious, very serious or fatal injuries, offering to the police an alternative to firearms or batons. What’s more: in a study conducted on 1200 interventions, the taser would have prevented serious injuries in 99.75% of cases.
In some ways, the competition also helps: in some Italian cities (in Genoa, for example) the experimentation of BolaWrap has begun, a snare that would be able to immobilize a person without hurting him: “We consider it a useful tool, even if it has some limitations and is not comparable to the taser – Angeloni told us – Our device is at a higher level in a possible escalation of violence. Anyway, anything that helps the police is good for us ”. Which is a little bit of kindness and a little bit of opportunism, because BolaWrap’s CEO is the brother of Axon’s CEO. In short, everything remains in the family.