The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has revealed that Amazon has been selling its facial recognition software, called Rekognition, to a number of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Using a freedom of information requests, the ACLU obtained correspondence between the respective departments and Amazon. According to the ACLU, Rekognition is a dangerous step towards a surveillance state. It could, the organization argues, lead to serious infringement on civil liberties.
Here’s what ACLU had to say in a post published on Tuesday 22 May:
People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. 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. Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely difficult to undo.
How is Rekognition currently being used?
Two U.S. police departments are using Rekognition. In Oregon, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is using the facial recognition tool to identify persons of interest from a database of 300,000 mugshots.
This is a project that has been underway for some time. Chris Adzima, Senior Information Systems Analyst for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, wrote a guest post on the AWS website outlining how they were using Rekognition in June 2017. Once the architecture was in place, the team built a mobile app to make the technology usable for officers.
In Orlando, meanwhile, police have been using AWS for ‘consulting and advisory services.’ They are seeking to implement Rekognition in a project referred to in the documentation as ‘Orlando Safety Video POC’. Orlando City police are paying $39,000 for AWS’ time on the project.
Civil liberties organizations pen an open letter to Jeff Bezos
The ACLU, along with a number of other organizations, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Data for Black Lives, penned an open letter to Jeff Bezos to express their concern. In an appeal to Amazon’s past commitment to civil liberties, the letter stated:
In the past, Amazon has opposed secret government surveillance. And you have personally supported First Amendment freedoms and spoken out against the discriminatory Muslim Ban. But Amazon’s Rekognition product runs counter to these values. As advertised, Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color.
The letter presents an impassioned plea for Amazon to consider the way in which it is its complicit with government agencies. It also offers a serious warning about the potential consequences of facial recognition technology in the hands of law enforcement.
Amazon defends collaborating with police
Amazon has been quick to defend itself. In a statement emailed to various news organizations, the company said “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology. Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes? Like any of our AWS services, we require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition.”
However, the key issue with Amazon’s statement is that the analogy with personal computers doesn’t quite hold. Individuals aren’t responsible for maintaining the law, and neither do they hold the same power that law enforcement agencies do. Technology might change how individuals behave, but that behavior must still comply with the law. The current scenario is a little different; the concern is around how technology might actually change the way the law functions. There isn’t, strictly speaking at least, any way of governing how that happens.
Whatever you make of Amazon’s work with law enforcement, it’s clear that we are about to enter a new era of disruption and innovation in public institutions. For some people, collaboration between public and private realms opens up plenty of opportunities. But there are many dangers that must be monitored and challenged.