Amazon's facial recognition services draw surveillance concerns

Gwen Vasquez
May 23, 2018

Amazon and the county of Washington, Oregon, have a cozy relationship revolving around the use of Amazon's facial recognition technology for policing, according to documents released today (May 22) by the American Civil Liberties Union (pdf).

It cost the sheriff's office just US$400 ($579) to load 305,000 booking photos - which are already public records - into the system and US$6 a month in fees to continue the service, according to an email obtained by the ACLU under a public records request. The Orlando Police department also told the publication that it hadn't deployed Rekognition for surveillance, and that it was only testing the service.

Deputy Jeff Talbot, public information officer for the Washington County Sheriff's Office, said the program was not operating in the shadows and had been the subject of several news local stories. In late 2016, the software giant talked up its facial detection software in a relatively benign AWS post announcing that the tech was already being implemented by The Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR for suspect identification.

The system makes use of Amazon's cloud computing platform, Amazon Web Services (AWS).

That business already includes work with the city of Orlando, Florida, and the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR, according to the ACLU's Northern California chapter.

Concern has also been raised about the possibility of migrating the technology to wearable body cameras, a move which the ACLU warns would transform officers into "surveillance machines". By publicising the software, some could read an implicitly menacing message to dissidents: if we can watch criminals, we can watch you. As people appear on camera - four exiting a vehicle, one walking a dog - the system began tracking them, displaying the path they walked in colored dots. As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world (e.g., various agencies have used Rekognition to find abducted people, amusement parks use Rekognition to find lost children, the royal wedding that just occurred this past weekend used Rekognition to identify wedding attendees, etc.). "The authorized cameras are then streaming the data ..."

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Through a freedom of information request, the ACLU was able to obtain emails sent back and forth between Amazon staff and law enforcement agencies in the states of OR and Florida.

"Particularly in the current political climate, we need to stop supercharged surveillance before it is used to track protesters, target immigrants, and spy on entire neighborhoods", she said. The service, called "Rekognition", uses artificial intelligence to identify, track and analyze faces in real time. Washington County has taken at least 300,000 mugshots and built a database to use with Rekognition.

In the USA, 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.

The ACLU's Mr Cagle said he believed Amazon was entering the surveillance industry without proper consideration about how this technology could be used in future.

While police might be able to videotape public demonstrations, face recognition is not merely an extension of photography but a biometric measurement - more akin to police walking through a demonstration and demanding identification from everyone there. "They have cameras all over the city".

In this video presentation, Das is seen saying the system can be set up to notify the city if cameras see a "person of interest", and it could be used to reconstruct a person's past movements.

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