Amazon's AI is powering scary police facial-recognition systems

Clay Curtis
May 23, 2018

"Rekognition marketing materials read like a user manual for authoritarian surveillance", said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director for the ACLU of California, in a statement.

USA civil liberties groups on Tuesday called on Amazon.com Inc to stop offering facial recognition services to governments, warning that the software could be used to target immigrants and people of colour unfairly.

Amazon's facial recognition technology, Rekognition, is raising concern among privacy advocates.

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 company said in a statement. You may remember a few months ago that China seemed pretty proud of its facial recognition software, which was effectively catching wanted criminals in Zhengzhou. Jessica Garcia, a spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer, said the pilot did not require City Council approval and no city funding has been used for the test. In a separate study conducted in 2012, facial recognition algorithms from vendor Cognitec performed 5 to 10 percent worse on African Americans than on Caucasians.

"Activating a real-time facial recognition system, that can track people, if the technology is there, could be as simple as flipping a switch in some communities", Cagle says.

Nonetheless, The Washington Post has discovered that the sheriff's office of Washington County has built a database of 300,000 mugshots that can be used with Rekognition in real-time.

The letter from civil liberties groups did not call for the government to outlaw Amazon's technology, but for Amazon to refrain from selling it to the government.

"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.

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But Sanders insisted that Democrats were cut out because they had not requested the same materials that their Republican colleagues had.

Amazon is actively marketing the surveillance technology to law enforcement despite CEO Jeff Bezos' past criticisms of government overreach in the realm of data.

Within a week of going live, the system was used to identify and arrest a suspect who stole more than $5,000 from local stores, he said, adding there were no leads before the system identified him. However, the Washington County Sheriff's Office points out, that's not how it's using the technology.

According to The Washington Post, law enforcement officials now utilizing this technology aren't breaking the bank to access it.

Amazon's technology isn't that different from what face recognition companies are already selling to law enforcement agencies. Another concern with Rekognition is that it comes from Amazon, the largest online retailer in the world, which also happens to be staking a claim in smart homes through voice assistants and cloud cameras.

Currently, the Washington County Sheriff's Office is only using the booking photos from its own jail in the database of images used with the software. The ACLU asked the two police departments for details of any public consultations held before the system was rolled out and about any safeguards in place to prevent abuse, but the details were sketchy - in part because one of them had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Amazon.

"Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm can't be undone".

"If Rekognition is not reined in, its use is also certain to spread", the ACLU said.

"Seconds saved in the field can make the difference in saving a life", Chris Adzima, an analyst in the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR, said in the blog post.

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