ACLU demands Amazon stop selling facial recognition technology to police

May 23, 2018, 19:43
ACLU demands Amazon stop selling facial recognition technology to police

In a letter sent to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the ACLU demanded that "Amazon stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country".

This under-wraps technology, dubbed "Rekognition", reportedly contains a library of "tens of millions of faces", which allow it to track "up to" 100 individuals in a given image and analyze their identity.

Amazon did not immediately respond to an AFP request for comment on the letter. The organization is anxious about the concept of "secret surveillance", a term used to describe governments that monitor citizens at all times under the guise of looking for "persons of interest".

According to The Washington Post, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns Amazon, the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR pays Amazon an amount between $6 and 12 every month to access the technology.

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In the records, Amazon also solicits feedback and ideas for "potential enhancements" to Rekognition's capabilities for governments. There are other known clients outside of law enforcement as well, as facial recognition technology has a wide range of possible uses.

Orlando Police spokesperson Sgt. Eduardo Bernal confirmed it is partnering with Amazon for a pilot.

Older versions of the Amazon Rekognition website advertised the service as a tool that law enforcement agencies could use to identify persons of interest by feeding police body cam footage into the Rekognition API. Rekognition was released in late 2016, with the sheriff's office in Washington County, Oregon, as its first customers, according to the Associated Press. Last month, the agency adopted policies governing its use, noting that officers in the field can use real-time face recognition to identify suspects who are unwilling or unable to provide their own ID, or if someone's life is in danger. Amazon says Rekognition can be used to identify "all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports"-at a time when Americans are joining public protests at unprecedented levels".

The city of Orlando, Florida, as well as the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR, are among Amazon's Rekognition customers.

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The ACLU of Northern California is shining more light on the tech this week, however, after announcing that it had obtained documents shedding more light on the service it believes "raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns".

Amazon requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use AWS services. This is something body camera manufacturers are already considering, and licensing an established product is far easier than building one from the ground up.

"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.

"Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology", the statement read.

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County representatives expected public blowback if civil-rights organizations like the ACLU learned about use of the Amazon technology. An invoice included among the documents shows that the e-commerce giant was charging the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR just $343.95. It said the OPD was not "utilizing any images of members of the public for testing", and that the partnership with Amazon was "to see if the technology even works".

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