Amazon facial recognition software raises privacy concerns with the ACLU

Amazon facial recognition software raises privacy concerns with the ACLU

Troy Powers
May 23, 2018

In light of all this, a coalition which incorporates the ACLU and many other organizations has issued a letter to Jeff Bezos asking Amazon to stop selling its Rekognition service to governmental agencies. Rekognition face surveillance is now operating across Orlando in real-time, according to Amazon, allowing the company to search for "people of interest" as footage rolls in from "cameras all over the city". 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. "We are not putting a camera out on a street corner", Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the sheriff's office told the AP.

"Technology is a tool; placing a tool in the context of extreme racism and brutality is simply going to produce more extreme racism and brutality", Cyril said of police use of cameras.

Amazon hasn't exactly kept Rekognition under wraps. Law enforcement agencies in California, Arizona, and other cities have also expressed an interest in adopting the technology.

Orlando is part of a public-private partnership with Amazon.

Amazon Rekognition was introduced in the year 2016 as a deep learning-based API that can identify "objects, people, text, scenes, and activities" upon providing a photo or video.

The organizations sent a letter to Amazon after an ACLU investigation found Amazon had been working with a number of U.S. law enforcement agencies to deploy its artificial intelligence-powered Rekognition service. In April, the office adopted policies governing its use, stipulating that officers could use real-time face recognition to ID suspects unwilling or unable to offer their own identify, or if someone's life is in danger. NY police, for instance, have already been caught filming protesters as an intimidation tactic - Rekognition could automate that process by flagging people who routinely show up at protests, no matter how innocent they are.

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"People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government", the groups wrote in a letter to Amazon on Tuesday.

Similarly, Amazon defended Rekognition's in a statement referencing its use in finding abducted persons and helping broadcasters identifying guests at last weekend's wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

It cost the sheriff's office just US$400 ($579) to load 305,000 booking photos - which are already public records - into the system and US$6 a month in fees to continue the service, according to an email obtained by the ACLU under a public records request.

Pointing out that Amazon has publicly opposed secret government surveillance and that Bezos has supported First Amendment rights, the letter says, "Rekognition product runs counter to these values".

Because of Rekognition's capacity for abuse, we asked Washington County and Orlando for any records showing that their communities had been provided an opportunity to discuss the service before its acquisition. In fact, Washington County began using Rekognition technology "even as employees raised questions internally". "Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology", the company wrote in a widely circulated statement. This is something body camera manufacturers are already considering, and licensing an established product is far easier than building one from the ground up. "Imagine if customers couldn't buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?"