Police use of Amazon's face-recognition service draws privacy warnings

Posted May 23, 2018

Amazon is one of many companies in the United States and elsewhere which deploy facial recognition for security and law enforcement over the concerns of civil liberties activists.

The company defended its facial recognition program, which matches photos and videos uploaded by the customer - not by Amazon.

These include tracking lost children and other missing persons as well as tracing crime suspects. "Imagine if customers couldn't buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?" the spokeswoman said. Some A.I. software that's used for facial recognition has been shown to be racially biased because it was trained using images with relatively few minorities included. Orlando police are testing it out on city cameras.

Nonetheless, documents obtained by the ACLU show that Amazon continued to privately market Rekognition as a surveillance solution to law enforcement, with a primer on its facial recognition system. "People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government", the organization writes. "In over-policed communities of color, it could effectively eliminate it", the group wrote in the letter.

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.

Oregon's Washington County Sheriff's Office has been using the new technology for a year.

Amazon's response is clear: if a client is using Rekognition in an unlawful or irresponsible manner, it will put a stop to it.

"It's a smart city, they have cameras all over the city, the authorized cameras are then streaming the data to Kinesis' video stream", Das said.

The ACLU and other civil-liberties groups sent a letter Tuesday, addressed to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, asking the company to stop marketing Rekognition to law enforcement.

The documents in question highlight Washington County's database of 300,000 mug shot photos and a mobile app designed specifically for deputies to cross-reference faces.

Amazon has helped various USA jurisdictions use Rekognition, said the letter, citing public records obtained by affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union. "Amazon must act swiftly to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties, including those of its own customers, and take Rekognition off the table for governments".

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.

Representatives for the Washington County Sheriff's Office didn't respond to a phone message seeking comment. The software, called Rekognition, was created in late 2016 and sold as part of the Amazon Web Services Cloud.

"If Rekognition is not reined in, its use is also certain to spread", the ACLU said. "Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely hard to undo", writes the ACLU.

"It makes them more efficient and better at fighting crime", Deputy Jeff Talbot of the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR said. 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.