Amazon is selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement

Ebony Scott
May 23, 2018

Amazon is selling facial recognition technology to US law enforcement agencies, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported today.

The program, called Rekognition, is sold though the online giant's Amazon Web Services division, and is now being used by police in Orlando, Florida and the sheriff's office in Washington County, Oregon.

The tech company has been advising the local government on how best to use facial recognition for policing, according to the documents, including giving a sneak peek at Amazon's roadmap for Amazon Web Services under a non-disclosure agreement.

According to those documents, both the City of Orlando and the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR have been customers of the service since 2017.

The argument: The ACLU and two dozen other civil rights organizations published an open letter addressed to Jeff Bezos asking Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to law enforcement groups.

Moreover Amazon sees that the main market for the "Rekognition" will be the governmental agencies use. Chris Adzima, a systems analyst in the office, told Amazon officials that he fed about 300,000 images from the county's mug shot database into Amazon's system. As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world (e.g., various agencies have used Rekognition to find abducted people, amusement parks use Rekognition to find lost children, the royal wedding that just occurred this past weekend used Rekognition to identify wedding attendees, etc.).

Motorola Solutions, producer of a popular version of police body cameras, is a Rekognition client.

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Facial recognition software works by matching real time images to a previous photograph of a person. This means that the law enforcement agency could only get a match on an image if the suspect in question had already been booked in the county's jail on previous charges. Researchers at Georgetown University estimate there are more than 130 million American adults in criminal facial recognition databases in the U.S. The marketing of Rekognition to law enforcement is still in its infancy, but he's anxious it could quickly become dominant, given Amazon's market clout as the world's leading cloud services company. But that is just a part of the services that Amazon has been providing to the county police in Washington.

"People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government", the letter also reads.

According to the ACLU, some law enforcement agencies in California have shown interest in recognition technology. 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. They suspect that the government agencies will deploy Rekognition, which was publicly introduced publicly in November 2016 to detect potentially unsafe content and track people, to track a variety of things including determining people who attended a protest, monitoring immigrants, and tracking people from various minority communities. In what Orlando' police chief called a "first-of-its-kind public-private partnership" Amazon has also been offering free consultancy in its deployment and use.

Amazon is one of many companies selling artificial intelligence tools such as facial recognition and image-scanning to business clients.

"In this political climate, to be clear, it's not a stretch of the imagination to see this being a tool used to round up immigrants, to target activists, and to surveil entire communities", ACLU of OR executive director David Rogers said.

"Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology. The authorized cameras are then streaming the data ... we are a subscriber to the stream, we analyze the video in real time, search against the collection of faces they have".

Amazon's facial recognition technology does have the ability to track people in real-time.

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