Amazon's facial recognition services draw surveillance concerns

Facial recognition

Amazon's facial recognition services draw surveillance concerns

The service is advertised as a "deep learning-based image and video analysis", and it has some big names on its customer list, such as HERE. Jessica Garcia, a spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer, said the pilot did not require City Council approval and no city funding has been used for the test.

The Rekognition artificial intelligence (AI) system is capable of scanning faces in real-time and matching them against a database. However, the Washington County Sheriff's Office points out, that's not how it's using the technology.

But privacy advocates have been concerned about expanding the use of facial recognition to body cameras worn by officers or safety and traffic cameras that monitor public areas, allowing police to identify and track people in real time.

The ACLU, along with dozens of other groups nationwide, just sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding that the company stop providing the technology to government agencies.

Documents obtained by the ACLU of Northern California through a records request have lifted the veil on Amazon's facial recognition project, dubbed Rekognition. The ACLU asked the two police departments for details of any public consultations held before the system was rolled out and about any safeguards in place to prevent abuse, but the details were sketchy - in part because one of them had signed a non-disclosure agreement with Amazon.

Through a freedom of information request, the ACLU was able to obtain emails sent back and forth between Amazon staff and law enforcement agencies in the states of OR and Florida.

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. Despite all of this, Amazon imposes no meaningful restrictions on how governments can use Rekognition. 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.

Pointing out that Amazon has publicly opposed secret government surveillance and that Bezos has supported First Amendment rights, the letter says, "Rekognition product runs counter to these values". The statement read: "Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color".

A new facial recognition tool has been rolled out by Amazon. Additionally, Rekognition has access to only eight city-owned cameras. British broadcaster Sky News used Rekognition to help viewers identify celebrities at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle last weekend. 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.

The artificial intelligence-powered system can analyze faces and nearly immediately run them through larger databases featuring tens of millions of faces to produce a similar result. "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", the group wrote.

It may be the NDAs discourage public discussion, but more likely the agencies acquiring the tech knew the public wouldn't be pleased with having their faces photographed, tracked, stored indefinitely, and compared to pictures stored in law enforcement databases.

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