Culture&Arts

ACLU tells AWS: Stop selling facial recognition tools to the government

ACLU tells AWS: Stop selling facial recognition tools to the government

Image-recognition software that Amazon developed for its cloud platform is being sold to police departments around the United States, according to documents disclosed by the American Civil Liberties Union today.

It's not clear how many law enforcement agencies have purchased the tool, called Rekognition, since its launch in late 2016 or since its update last fall, when Amazon added capabilities that allow it to identify people in videos and follow their movements nearly instantly.

Law enforcement agencies in Florida and OR are using the service for surveillance, according to the ACLU.

In most cases, Amazon charged as little as $400 for setup and "just a few dollars" each month thereafter.

In the past, police departments had to pay tens of thousands of dollars for facial recognition systems, provided by traditional vendors such as NEC. As people appear on camera - four exiting a vehicle, one walking a dog - the system began tracking them, displaying the path they walked in colored dots.

Your first reaction to this might be to wonder why Amazon has facial recognition software in the first place - after all, it doesn't seem to be part of its core business model. "When analyzing video, you can also identify specific activities happening in the frame, such as "delivering a package" or 'playing soccer'". Amazon's push to secure a sizable portion of this market is only making things worse, and its use of NDAs is going to further distance these public agencies from being accountable to the people they serve.

Hooked up to cameras on a businesses premises, the technology stores biometric data that enables people's faces to be recognised when they return.

"Amazon Rekognition is primed for abuse in the hands of governments", the letter reads.

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"We require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition".

The ACLU is urging Amazon to stop marketing Rekognition to governments.

The documents reveal that Rekognition has been used in Police Body Camera to identify people. "As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world", the company wrote in a statement to TechCrunch. The Orlando Police department also told the publication that it hadn't deployed Rekognition for surveillance, and that it was only testing the service. Washington County even signed a non-disclosure agreement created by Amazon to get "insight into the Rekognition roadmap" and provide additional feedback about the product. A 2011 study found that systems developed in China, Japan, and South Korea had more trouble distinguishing between Caucasian faces than East Asians. "By automating mass surveillance, this freedom is threatened".

Then there's the issue of privacy.

Malkia Cyril, executive director for the Center for Media Justice and a Black Lives Matter leader, said, "Technology is a tool; placing a tool in the context of extreme racism and brutality is simply going to produce more extreme racism and brutality". Some of those databases are managed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Next Generation Identification program, details of which weren't disclosed to the public until five years after its launch in 2010.

(The marketing materials show it recognizing retired Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.) But as as a law-enforcement tool, the ACLU says it "can be readily used to violate civil liberties and civil rights".

"These improvements allow deputies in the field to receive the response to searches in near real time", Sherriff's Office Analyst Chris Adzima said in a statement.

Update at 7 p.m.


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