Amazon And The PoPo

Written by Ann Brown

Facial recognition systems threaten communities already unjustly targeted, critics say.

Amazon is selling police departments across the country a real-time facial recognition system and many are not too happy about it. In fact, several organizations have sent a letter asking Amazon to stop doing so.

More than two dozen civil rights organizations are calling on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling its facial recognition technology to the government, according to a letter made public by the ACLU, CNN reported. In all, 41 activist groups and entities cosigned the letter. Among them are the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Freedom of the Press Foundation and Human Rights Watch.

The technology is “primed for abuse in the hands of governments,” according to the letter.

Introduced by Amazon in 2016, the technology is called Rekognition. It uses artificial intelligence to identify the objects, people, scenes, and more from images or videos.

Initially, Rekognition was part of the Amazon Web Services cloud. It is “also used by consumer services like Pinterest and C-SPAN for object recognition and analytics. Most recently, it provided the backend for a Sky News project that used facial recognition to identify guests at the royal wedding. Motorola Solutions, a popular supplier of police body cameras, is also a client,” the Verge reported.

The reason law enforcement likes Rekognition is that it can recognize and track suspects or “persons of interest” in real time. It can pull out faces from a crowd.

Although this may be an effective tool for law enforcement agencies, many critics are concerned that it may infringe on privacy rights and be used to target vulnerable populations.  The organizations that expressed their concern in the letter, pointed out that this technology might be abused by police in communities of color.

“This product poses a grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants, and to the trust and respect Amazon has worked to build,” the letter reads. “People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom.”

The ACLU  obtained emails through the Freedom of Information Act sent between Amazon employees and local law enforcement about the facial recognition technology and its usage.

“In email correspondence with Amazon, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon said it has roughly 300,000 images in its jail booking photo database that it has uploaded to Rekognition. Those photos are used to compare against images of suspects from security cameras or pictures provided by citizens,” CNN reported.

The Washington County Sheriff pays between $6 and $12 a month for access to Rekognition, through which the department scans mugshot photos against real-time footage, The Washington Post reported.

For the ACLU, that capability raises significant civil liberties concerns.

“By automating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom, posing a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate,” the group said in a statement. “People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government.”

“As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world,” an Amazon representative said in a statement to The Verge. “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.”

“Amazon requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use (Amazon Web Services). When we find that AWS services are being abused by a customer, we suspend that customer’s right to use our services.”