US 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 color unfairly. According to Amazon, the Washington County Sheriff's Office has already used Rekognition to reduce suspect identification time from several days down to mere minutes.
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.
Rekognition being used by the Washington County sheriff's department in Oregon.
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".
Emails and other documents show that Washington County has a database of more than 300,000 mugshots that is indexed by Rekognition. In April, the office adopted policies governing its use, stipulating that officers could use real-time face recognition to ID suspects unwilling or unable to offer their own identify, or if someone's life is in danger. "Cities might routinely track their own residents, whether they have reason to suspect criminal activity or not", the civil liberties group explained. They could even involve building Rekognition software into the body cameras that police allegedly wear to increase transparency and public accountability (even though the cameras tend to mysteriously malfunction at inopportune moments). They also now actively market their artificial intelligence-powered facial recognition software, Rekognition, for use in police surveillance. Company brochures describe use by law enforcement agencies as common case.
In China, authorities have created a digital surveillance system able to use a variety of biometric data - from photos and iris scans to fingerprints - to keep close tabs on the movements of the entire population, and uses it to publicly identify lawbreakers and jaywalkers. "People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government", the organization writes.
In the US, there are no laws that bar law enforcement from using real-time facial recognition, but the technology - and the use of artificial intelligence for surveillance purposes - remains controversial. Furthermore, this technology is quite cheap, with estimated costs for the two law enforcement agencies that have deployed it being placed at around a few tens of dollars per month. "By automating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom", the ACLU said.
As the people "leveraging" the Rekognition technology may or may not realize, facial recognition software tends to be racist.
What's more, Orlando ordered its facial recognition system from Amazon.
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.
Amazon Web Services contains and streams countless hours of video of content and could compare faces analyzed in streaming videos with those in its videos. "I can tell you, right now at this time, we only use Washington County jail booking photos". The statement read: "Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color".
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.