Teguhjati Pras/Pixabay

Teguhjati Pras/Pixabay

Amazon Draws Heat for Facial Recognition Tool Used for Policing

A coalition of civil rights organizations accused the company of encouraging mass surveillance.

Set in the year 2054, Steven Spielberg’s 2002 sci-fi hit Minority Report served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of predictive policing. But civil rights organizations say that a dystopian reality in which facial recognition devices beget mass surveillance is right around the corner.

Rekognition, Amazon’s facial recognition tool that launched in 2016, uses images and videos to identify, analyze and compare people, objects and scenes. Advertised to consumers as a service that assists in cataloging photos and user verification, the tech behemoth soon began marketing it as a public safety tool to law enforcement.

Concerned about its potential for misuse, The ACLU of Washington and 35 other organizations sent a letter to Amazon Tuesday urging the company to stop promoting Rekognition to government agencies throughout the country. In the letter, the coalition expressed its concerns that the facial recognition tool could be used to target protestors or undocumented immigrants who are “labeled suspicious by the government.”

Although it’s unknown how many governments use the object recognition service, documents acquired through a Freedom of Information Act request from the ACLU showed that Amazon has helped cities from Oregon to Florida deploy Rekognition. The company has provided free consulting services to governments, and encouraged law enforcement to use Rekognition when analyzing police body camera footage. Documents showed that government officials in Orlando, Fla., have used Rekognition to search for people in the city’s security camera footage. Oregon’s Washington County Sheriff’s Office also created a mobile app that uses Rekognition to compare suspects against the county jail’s database of over 300,000 booking photos.

“It’s concerning, especially now when political leaders are actively drumming up fear of immigrants and Muslims in communities across the country, that a company with Amazon’s power and reach would actively market this facial recognition technology to governments,” OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly. “There must be a way to ensure transparency and accountability in order to protect the civil liberties of all Americans, and we’re calling on Amazon to acknowledge the responsibility they have and act accordingly.”

Amazon maintains that it requires its customers to comply with the law when using its services. Rekognition has been used to find lost children at amusement parks, abducted people, and even to identify guests at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s recent wedding. “And, the utility of AI services like this will only increase as more companies start using advanced technologies like Amazon Rekognition,” an Amazon Web Services spokesperson wrote in a statement to Seattle Weekly. “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?”

Still, the coalition fears that Amazon’s wide reach could further normalize law enforcement’s use of facial recognition software in its policing. Although the Seattle Police Department began deploying facial-recognition software in 2014, the agency adheres to strict guidelines and prohibits real-time, live video use of the tool. According to the department’s manual, the usage of facial-recognition software is limited to identifying people already suspected of a crime.

However, many police departments throughout the country don’t have as tight of controls on their software usage. A 2016 study by the D.C.-based non-profit Upturn found that about half of the nation’s 50 largest law enforcement agencies use predictive policing.

“Widespread and inexpensive use of facial recognition by governments is a game-changer that will fundamentally alter the relationship between government and community members,” ACLU of Washington Technology and Liberty Director, Shankar Narayan, said in a press release.“Amazon should listen to community voices and protect its customers’ civil liberties instead of jumping in to create a surveillance infrastructure for governments.”

Privacy advocates argue that Amazon’s marketing of Rekognition to the police not only contradicts the company’s commitment to public trust, it also ignores the historical targeting of communities of color. On Thursday, The Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter to Amazon expressing their fear that law enforcement would abuse the technology.

“It is quite clear that communities of color are more heavily and aggressively policed than white communities. This status quo results in an oversampling of data which, once used as inputs to an analytical framework leveraging artificial intelligence, could negatively impact outcomes in those oversampled communities,” Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) wrote in the letter, according to The Hill.

Narayan notes that the outpouring of public outrage following the release of the documents is “all the more reason for government not to have access to this very invasive technology.”

mhellmann@seattleweekly.com

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