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It has emerged that Amazon representatives met with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this Summer in a bid to sell its facial recognition tool Rekognition.

Emails obtained by The Daily Beast show that officials from Amazon met with ICE on June 12 in Redwood City. In that meeting, Amazon outlined some of AWS capabilities, stating that “we are ready and willing to help support the vital HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] mission.”

The emails (which you can see for yourself here) also show that Amazon were keen to set up a “workshop” with U.S. Homeland Security, and “a meeting to review the process in more depth and help assess your target list of ‘Challenges [capitalization intended]’.” What these ‘Challenges’ are referring to exactly is unclear.

The controversy around Amazon’s Rekognition tool

These emails will only serve to increase the controversy around Rekognition and Amazon’s broader involvement with security services.

Earlier this year the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) revealed that a small number of law enforcement agencies were using Rekognition for various purposes. Later, in July, the ACLU published the results of its own experiment with Rekognition in which it incorrectly matched mugshots with 28 Congress members.

Amazon responded to this research with a rebuttal on the AWS blog. In it, the Dr. Matt Wood stated that “machine learning is a very valuable tool to help law enforcement agencies, and while being concerned it’s applied correctly, we should not throw away the oven because the temperature could be set wrong and burn the pizza.”

This post was referenced in the email correspondence between Amazon and ICE. Clearly, the issue of accuracy was an issue in the company’s discussion with security officials.


The controversy continued this month after an employee published an anonymous letter on Medium, urging the company not to sell Rekognition to police. They wrote:

“When a company puts new technologies into the world, it has a responsibility to think about the consequences.”

Amazon claims Rekognition isn’t a surveillance service

We covered this story on the Packt Hub last week. Following publication, an Amazon PR representative contacted us, stating that  “Amazon Rekognition is NOT a surveillance service” [emphasis the writer’s, not mine]. The representative also cited the post mentioned above by Dr. Matt Wood, keen to tackle some of the challenges presented by the ACLU research.

Although Amazon’s position is clear, it will be difficult for the organization to maintain that line given these emails. Separating the technology from its deployment is all well and good until its clear that you’re courting the kind of deployment for which you are being criticised.

Note 10.30.2018 – Amazon spokesperson responded with a comment, wishing to clarify the events described from its perspective:

“We participated with a number of other technology companies in technology “boot camps” sponsored by McKinsey Company, where a number of technologies were discussed, including Rekognition. As we usually do, we followed up with customers who were interested in learning more about how to use our services (Immigration and Customs Enforcement was one of those organizations where there was follow-up discussion).”

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.