Orlando Police Department tests facial recognition software

Facial recognition

Civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are concerned that low-priced facial recognition software marketed by online retail giant Amazon to law enforcement agencies could lead to chilling abuses, allowing police to track millions of people in real time.

The program, called Rekognition, is sold though the online giant's Amazon Web Services division, and is now being used by police in Orlando, Florida and the sheriff's office in Washington County, Oregon.

In a statement provided to the New York Times, the Washington County Sheriff's said that it wasn't using Amazon's facial recognition system for real-time tracking or with footage from body cameras - only to identify suspects in criminal investigations.

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.

Amazon is actively marketing the surveillance technology to law enforcement despite CEO Jeff Bezos' past criticisms of government overreach in the realm of data. The letter says that the system is "primed for abuse in the hands of governments" and could be used to track protesters instead of catching criminals. "Like any of our AWS services, we require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition".

What's more, Orlando ordered its facial recognition system from Amazon.

Using Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, ACLU investigators obtained communications between the two law enforcement agencies and Amazon.

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In emails between Amazon and Washington County employees, the company offers the expertise of the Rekognition product team, troubleshoots problems encountered by the county, and provides "best practices" advice on how to deploy the service. Amazon has been marketing the technology as a law enforcement service, the civil rights organization says, having obtained documents detailing ways the AI has been deployed in several United States counties. Amazon sees police use of its tool as "common" and describes the technology as an "easy and accurate way" to monitor public spaces and identify "people of interest". They do this well, because you probably buy things from Amazon, or know someone who does.

The American Civil Liberties Union said it is highly concerned with "false positives" and urged Amazon to get out of the surveillance business.

After Google, which is facing criticism for working with the U.S. army, now Amazon is under fire for selling face-recognition technology to police in the US.

The city says the cameras Amazon has access to are "extremely restricted and limited to only eight city-owned cameras". 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.

Amazon brags that Rekognition's facial database includes tens of millions of faces, though it remains unclear how that came to be the case.

Amazon announced its facial recognition service, called Rekognition, back in 2016.

"Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology", the spokesperson wrote. But among the few dissenters was Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a leader in the Black Lives Matter network, who warned early and often that the cameras could become tools of surveillance against people of color because "body-worn cameras don't watch the police, they watch the community being policed, people like me".

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