Amazon draws fire for selling face recognition to law enforcement


According to a 147-page report published today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amazon has been contacting states and advertising "Amazon Rekognition", a deep learning-based facial recognition system that can work against both image and video inputs.

ACLU experts said they've reached out to Amazon with their concerns, but the company reacted by removing mentions of law enforcement and body cams from the Rekognition website. The Orlando Police department also told the publication that it hadn't deployed Rekognition for surveillance, and that it was only testing the service.

"We demand that Amazon stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country", the groups wrote in the letter. Rekognition can find, identify, and track people in real time, and was recently used for a cute-yet-ethically-dubious "who's who?" broadcast of the recent royal wedding.

Talbot said the Washington County Sheriff's Office has no plans to stop use of the Rekognition software, despite the ACLU's calls for the technology to be shelved. It puts passive cameras on surveillance steroids, giving any person who strolls past a government camera a chance to be mistaken for a wanted suspect.

Last month, at the Amazon Web Services Summit in Korea, Amazon's GM of Rekognition Services, Ranju Das, revealed that Orlando is a "partner".

The tool, called Rekognition, is already being used by at least one agency - the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR - to check photographs of unidentified suspects against a database of mug shots from the county jail, which is a common use of such technology around the country.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office says it does not use Rekognition in real time and doesn't intend to. Amazon even signed a secrecy agreement with a prominent law enforcement customer. "Axon is not actively working on facial recognition at this time", chief executive officer Rick Smith said in a statement.

"That appears to be the extent of its response to our concerns; this and other profoundly troubling surveillance practices are still permissible under the company's policies", the ACLU said. Researchers at Georgetown University estimate there are more than 130 million American adults in criminal facial recognition databases in the U.S.

Orlando, Florida, agencies may also be joining the growing number of companies and agencies to use the software to "use existing city resources to provide real-time detection and notification of persons-of-interest, further increasing public safety", according to the Associated Press story. Cities might routinely track their own residents, whether they have reason to suspect criminal activity or not.

Beyond its claim that facial recognition threatens freedom, particularly among minority communities, the ACLU contends that facial recognition algorithms are prone to bias.

Orlando is part of a public-private partnership with Amazon. In fact, Washington County began using Rekognition technology "even as employees raised questions internally". It is deemed that the technology could be used for arresting suspicious people and its fallacious nature can axe the right to privacy of the public.

"As advertised, Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color", an ACLU-led coalition said in a letter on Tuesday to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

"Amazon is handing governments a surveillance system primed for abuse", Cagle says. She said that she anxious that people's civil rights are violated when law enforcement keep their images in a database even after they are proved innocent or were never charged.