Police Deploy Amazon Rekognition Facial Recognition Tech Sparking Privacy Rights Outrage

While we may all know Amazon for fast, two-day shipping on millions of products, Prime Video, and a host of other offline and online services, police departments are looking to the tech giant for a different reason. According to emails that were obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) via a freedom of information request, the company is selling its Rekognition software to police departments across the United States.

The Rekognition artificial intelligence (AI) system is capable of scanning faces in real-time and matching them against a database. In the case of police departments, this tool is being used to match people that may walk within range of a law enforcement cameras stationed within a city against a database of known criminals. 

amazon rekognition

Amazon claims that Rekognition can identify up to 100 human faces from a single frame of video and can compare each face across a database filled with millions of potential matches. In addition, Amazon says that footage from a police officer’s body-worn camera could also serve as a source for obtaining facial data -- video footage would simply be uploaded after the fact or streamed in real-time.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office based in Oregon is using Rekognition to filter through imaging data captured by a citywide camera network and then compare it against a database of 300,000 faces. The Washington Post further reports that the sheriff's office pays Amazon just $6 to $12 per month for access to Rekognition's capabilities. But it's not just the Washington County Sheriff's office that is sold on Rekognition.

"[The] City of Orlando is a launch partner of ours," said Amazon's Ranju Das at a developer conference held in Seoul, South Korea. "They have cameras all over the city. The authorized cameras are then streaming the data. We are a subscriber to the stream, we analyze the video in real time, search against the collection of faces they have.

"Maybe they want to know if the mayor of the city is in a place, or there are persons of interest they want to track."

We don't know about you, but that sounds rather creepy and a borderline invasion of privacy. According to the ALCU, numerous other law enforcement agencies across the country are eager to work with Amazon on Rekognition.

“Rekognition marketing materials read like a user manual for authoritarian surveillance,” said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Director for the ACLU of California. “Once a dangerous surveillance system like this is turned against the public, the harm can’t be undone. 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."

The ACLU's fear is that Rekognition won't just be used against hardened criminals, but also as a way to identify and target people that may pose less of a threat. For that reason, the ACLU has teamed up with dozens of groups to send an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in order to prevent law enforcement agencies from having access to Rekognition.

"We demand that Amazon stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country," states the open letter. "Amazon should not be in the business of providing surveillance systems like Rekognition to the government."

The ACLU’s concerns are even more poignant when you consider that a similar system deployed in South Wales during the 2017 Champions League final racked up a 92 percent false positive rate, getting 2,297 out of 2,470 "matches" against potential criminals incorrect.