17 Oct 2022

Police consider using US taser maker to capture and store sensitive criminal data

8:18 am on 17 October 2022
A German police officer is wearing an Axon body camera.

A German police officer wearing an Axon body camera. Photo: Sebastian Gollnow / DPA / dpa Picture-Alliance via AFP

This is the first of two stories about police working more and more with US taser-maker, Axon, to gather, analyse and store evidence, interviews and other footage offshore.

Police are looking to a hugely profitable US taser maker for new ways to capture sensitive criminal case evidence and store it overseas.

They are also considering getting new stun guns, and possibly body cameras, from the $9 billion Axon corporation.

OIA documents show Axon is in the mix for storing all sorts of crime scene footage and "very sensitive" interviews, including on sex crimes, because existing systems are on their last legs.

In a 2020 report, police said: "The expectation ... [is] that all of our electronic interviewing will transition to evidence.com over the next 18 months - two years."

Axon's evidence.com storage system has an online sign-in page featuring a big ad for the latest number-plate-spotting camera.

Police are refusing to disclose key information about their plans, such as the cost and the contract.

Their deepening partnership with the US firm has gone largely unpublicised and without public input, except from some lawyers.

Axon's share price has shot up 400 percent in five years as it becomes increasingly embedded in global law enforcement. It has almost one million body-cams in use by US police.

Defence lawyers in Auckland and Wellington have complained they must sign up to Axon's terms, and come under US jurisdiction, to access evidence.

They forced through a change in terms and conditions in 2019 - RNZ has contacted the Auckland barrister behind this but she declined to talk.

Axon has courted controversy in the US over wanting to put tasers on drones.

In this country, it has courted senior police: Six of them have been on all-expenses-paid by Axon trips to the US, and one to Australia, since 2016, the OIA shows.

The 132-page OIA response shows New Zealand is following a similar track to abroad, where Axon commonly bundles up tasers with body-cameras along with data storage to do discount deals, for instance in Margate, US.

In New Zealand, Axon sells police the hardware, licences them the software, then leases them the cloud storage.

"Storage ... is a key logistical issue," said a 2021 review into tasers-with-cameras versus tasers with body-cams, released here for the first time.

The review said police would have to tread very carefully if they buy their new tasers and separate body-cams.

In the US in 2017, Axon offered a free bodycam for "every police officer" - so long as they signed up for the cloud storage.

The NZ Police Association noted a year ago that some US departments removed the body-cams because of the rising data storage costs. Baltimore's storage bill rose by four times between 2016 and 2020, to $50m.

Here, Axon offered police the free use of another system, Axon Citizen.

This lets the public send in videos of attacks or other crimes, so they can be sent on to frontline officers or used as evidence. Queensland and Tasmania are keen on it.

The firm also recently loaned police an electronic "interview room" or unit, and demonstrated it to recruits at the police college in Wellington.

How an Axon ‘interview room’ in the US is set up. New Zealand police had one on loan from the company.

How an Axon ‘interview room’ in the US is set up. New Zealand police had one on loan from the company. Photo: Axon website

Police trialled Axon Citizen inconclusively in 2018. Twelve people sent them photos or video; in just one case they proved it helped apprehend a dodgy driver.

A second trial failed to go ahead in May this year.

RNZ asked police for their emails with Axon about the free Citizen deal, but they did not release them.

Police first used Axon back in 2007. For a decade, police held the taser footage in-house, and Axon (then Taser International) remotely managed it.

But in 2017, after a self-described "brief" privacy impact assessment that canvassed just eight police staff, police opted to begin sending the taser footage to Axon's cloud storage in Canberra.

"The project will lessen existing privacy risks," the privacy assessment said.

Video of family harm cases - injuries, scenes and interviews - was added en masse from 2020, the documents show.

Court registrars now also use the evidence.com storage, from Canberra servers, to access police evidence files.

By contrast, Axon's US deals often contain guarantees all content will only be stored within the United States.

New Zealand police said some of the evidence held by Axon was about or from children.

"There are no additional controls around data storage for persons under 18 years" over and above regular controls, they told RNZ.

All the evidence stored by Axon was controlled and owned by police, and Axon had "limited" access or editing of it, they said.

What if Axon goes bust? Police said that was covered in their Service Agreement - which they withheld from RNZ.

Axon's routine terms state it can terminate its service at any time, and clients get 90 days to remove their data.

The OIA documents do not mention number-plate cameras, but police are looking at putting more of these in patrol cars.

Several recent US police-Axon deals show body-cams can cost about $1000 each. Individual licences to use basic evidence.com cost about $300 each, and 'Pro' licences about $800 each.

No such cost details are forthcoming from New Zealand police, except to say, "unlimited data storage is included in the overall fee."

Also, they said they pay for both basic and pro evidence.com licences, though not how many.

Police also withheld the reports they said they have done into:

  • replacing their investigative interviewing suites - this covers where child and sexual assault victim interviews are done, and those with suspects and witnesses;
  • replacing their Axon TaserX2s - these have built-in cameras which are causing problems;
  • and using Axon to store their masses of forensic imaging.

Police said it would be commercially prejudicial, and compromise free and frank discussion among officials, to tell the public more.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs