Activists urge Amazon to drop facial recognition for police

Amazon's Facial Recognition Tool

Amazon's Facial Recognition Tool

After internal emails (pdf) published by the ACLU on Tuesday revealed that Amazon has been aggressively selling its facial recognition product to law enforcement agencies throughout the USA, privacy advocates and civil libertarians raised grave concerns that the retailer is effectively handing out a "user manual for authoritarian surveillance" that could be deployed by governments to track protesters, spy on immigrants and minorities, and crush dissent.

The Washington County Sheriff's office said it was using Rekognition to search and identify unknown theft suspects, unconscious or deceased individuals, people of interest who don't have identification, and leads for possible witnesses and accomplices, according to an email obtained by the ACLU.

Matt Cagle of the ACLU of Northern California says he's disturbed by what he sees as a lack of transparency and public engagement, as police and tech companies work together to bring this new tool to American streets.

In a statement, Orlando police spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Bernal said OPD's use of Rekognition is "extremely restricted" - limited to eight city-owned cameras and using facial imaging only from a "handful" of officers who volunteered to test the technology.

Today, a coalition of civil rights groups has jointly signed a letter that calls for Amazon to stop selling this technology. Why? The letter says that the system is "primed for abuse in the hands of governments" and could be used to track protesters instead of catching criminals.

"Washington County [Oregon] has since built a database of at least 300,000 mugshot photos to use in coordination with Rekognition". His department uses Amazon's Rekognition to scan faces in photos of suspects taken by deputies in the field. The footage could come from police body cameras and public and private cameras. He showed the conference a demo of real-time facial recognition using video from a "traffic cam that was provided by the city of Orlando". If police body cameras, for example, were outfitted with facial recognition, devices intended for officer transparency and accountability would further transform into surveillance machines aimed at the public. Law enforcement in California and Arizona have already shown an interest in using the technology - and it is hard to imagine that Bezos would heed the ACLU's warnings. "According to its marketing materials, it views deployment by law enforcement agencies as a "common use case" for this technology", the civil rights group said.

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Amazon offers the technology to law enforcement for just $6 to $12 a month.

The police department in Orlando, Florida, is also trying out Rekognition to track people in real time, identifying them as they walk down the street, the ACLU said. Its police force has used the technology to identify suspected shoplifters from security footage, according to RouteFifty.

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

The technology, called Rekognition, uses artificial intelligence to identify the objects, people, scenes, and more from images or videos. "When we find that AWS services are being abused by a customer, we suspend that customer's right to use our services", an AWS spokesperson said.

Foodstuffs, which includes the New World, Pak'nSave and Four Square brands, has said it uses facial recognition technology in some North Island stores, but won't say which ones. "Amazon should never be in the business of aiding and abetting racial discrimination and xenophobia - but that's exactly what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is doing when he sells these loosely regulated facial recognition tools to local police departments".

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