Concerns about privacy under US-linked police data storage

Police are seeking to expand their use of a controversial evidence storage system run by an American company that supplies them with Tasers.

WEST VALLEY CITY, UT - MARCH 2: West Valley City Patrol Officer Gatrell shows off his new body camera attached to the side of a pair of goggles on the first day of use on March 2, 2015 in West Valley City , Utah.  The West Valley City Police Department has issued 190 Taser Axon Flex body cameras for all of its sworn officers to wear starting today.  George Frey/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by GEORGE FREY / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Axon was a pioneer in the field of body cameras, as this US file photo shows.
Photo: George Frey

The company, Axon, was recently pilloried in the United States for suggesting mounting stun guns on drones in American schools in response to the shootings in Uvalde, Texas.

Several lawyers, who must register with Axon and whose access to the police evidence it stores are tracked, say using the system in this country is bad for defendants.

“It involves the preparation of a case by the defense – it’s not something the police should be aware of,” said Jonathan Hudson, a solicitor from South Auckland.

Its access to evidence of domestic violence cases has been controlled by the Axon system since it was expanded in 2017 to include victim interviews.

Lawyers cannot record any footage and say it is difficult to show it to clients in custody who do not have internet.

Police have been using Axon’s Tasers for years – Axon, when it was called Taser International, invented the Taser.

In 2010, they became Axon’s first major customer worldwide to also lease access to its data storage system, evidence.com, to store Taser footage.

This storage. rather than the taser, has since become Axon’s focus as a cash dispenser, but has caused controversy over where the public data goes.

Now the police here want to go further, telling RNZ that a lawsuit is “currently pending regarding its use for the storage of the Air Support Unit (Eagle [helicopter]) pictures”.

“Testing is also underway to see if the Axon/evidence.com system can be used for other forms of interviewing.”

They say they consult with the Department of Justice.

The Privacy Commissioner was not consulted. The police minister’s office said the minister “has not received any information about this”.

Lawyers were informed in Manukau about the extension of the system in 2017 to domestic violence cases.

One, who spoke anonymously to RNZ via the Criminal Bar Association, said “Lawyers were very unhappy in general.

They “raised concerns at the time that the police knew when you were watching it and how many times – and couldn’t figure out why it was necessary.

“But we were basically told there would be no chance,” the attorney said.

Contract conditions related to US law

Anyone wishing to access the cloud-based proof-com system in Australia must sign a terms of service agreement with Axon which subjects them to the law of their home state of Arizona.

This grants them “limited and revocable” access, with any disputes to be decided in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Upper Hutt lawyer Michael Bott recently signed up for taser footage in a case – then thought again.

“My client is clearly entitled to this disclosure…but I have to hold myself accountable in Arizona. This is crazy.”

The system maintains a full metadata trail, listed on “evidence audit trail” forms with the Axon logo on one side and the police logo on the other.

Police told RNZ this lead:

  • Original insertion of the footage into the system
  • Each evidence access instance
  • Who accesses it and when on each occasion
  • When the evidence was released
  • “Each instance of the video shared with other parties, including the date, time, and account details of the person it is sharing with”
  • Bott said the latter could be an expert witness for the defense that he doesn’t want the police to know – and what they wouldn’t, under the old police system providing a disk he could take and access privately.

    Bott and Hudson say the police did not tell them about metadata tracking.

    “It’s definitely something that should have been made known,” Hudson said, adding that he only knew because RNZ told him.

    Bott said: “They don’t tell you that when you go to the site you are subject to US tort law, [or] that you leave a data trail that they can verify.

    “It is a complete erosion of a client’s right to protection of professional secrecy.”

    WEST VALLEY CITY, UT - MARCH 2: A West Valley City police officer shows off a newly deployed body camera strapped to his shirt collar on March 2, 2015 in West Valley City, Utah.  The West Valley City Police Department has issued 190 Taser Axon Flex body cameras for all of its sworn officers to wear starting today.  George Frey/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by GEORGE FREY / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

    Axon now uses a cloud-based evidence collection system.
    Photo: George Frey

    Complaints about system accessibility

    Operationally, the data system was described as “terrible and inconvenient” by the lawyer who spoke via the Criminal Bar Association.

    “We are indebted to the police when and where we can access the videos.

    “The format is such that you have to open each link to find the video you’re looking for because each video is a bunch of numbers and no name.”

    Access to the site expires after six months. It was much less time than most cases take and then”[you] have to beg for access again,” they said.

    Police had suggested the solution to gaining custody was to book an AV link and then ‘hold your laptop’.

    Hudson also said it wouldn’t work well.

    “The requirement to access plaintiff statements through this system limits the ability of defendants to prepare their cases and access justice by accessing information that will be used against them at trial,” Hudson said.

    Axon states on its website that “As the world rethinks the future of law enforcement, Axon’s technology will play an increasingly important role in how society works.”

    Its managing director, Rick Smith, said the new yorker in 2018, “We are the technology company that will make the world less violent.”

    Police said they carried out a privacy impact assessment in 2017. RNZ requested a copy.

    The acting privacy commissioner says she was not consulted about police use of Axon.

    “Best practice would be for agencies to consult with us when launching a new technology tool or expanding the scope of an existing tool or program,” Liz MacPherson said in a statement.

    In the United States, Axon has donated body cameras to numerous police departments in exchange for software licenses and image access fees in perpetuity – prompting questions about the relationship being forged, and others about the whether the images are truly tamper-proof.

    Here, a police report shows that they have already accepted an offer from Axon to extend the service for free.

    “The product has been offered for use by the vendor at no additional cost to law enforcement and provides an easy way to receive and store digital photographic evidence of a witness to an incident,” he said.

    However, the report shows that one of the reasons why the police did not prosecute body cameras is the issue of data storage.

    Fixes already use Axon body cameras.

    The relationship between New Zealand Police and Axon since 2017 extends to a senior officer and deputy chief executive who travel to Axon events in the United States for several days, with the company paying for airfare and hotels.

    Bott said defense attorneys were being asked to play second fiddle to a “comfortable contractual relationship.”

    The police minister’s office said the minister was not informed of the expansion of evidence.com.

    In the United States, Axon said in 2020 that it had 37 million hours of body camera footage and averted 200,000 potential deaths from lethal police force.

    In addition, storing the evidence freed the police from writing time-consuming reports, he said.

    Axon declined to speak to RNZ.

    “It is Axon’s policy not to comment on customer contracts or orders,” he said.

    Leave a Comment