Amazon is selling its face recognition technology to US law enforcement agencies

Facial recognition scan

A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) shows that Amazon has started selling facial recognition software to at least two US law enforcement agencies.

A report published by the ACLU shows that the online retailer has been advertising its facial recognition system -- known as Amazon Rekognition, and described as "deep learning-based image and video analysis" -- to numerous states. Testimonials from the Orlando, Florida Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon suggest that the system is already in use.

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The 147-page report has been partially redacted, but it is still possible to see that Amazon is pushing Amazon Rekognition as a government surveillance system which can be used on both still images and video. Emails show that the company is offering free support and troubleshooting to help get the system off the ground.

One email from Amazon to a law enforcement agency reads:

I am the Account Manager for AWS covering Oregon, and I noticed that you were leveraging our new Rekognition service. Because the service is so new, we are reaching out to customers to make sure they get all the support they need to succeed with their particular use case.

The ACLU says that "Amazon's Rekognition raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns," voicing concern about the possible future use of the technology by law enforcement and government:

With this technology, police would be able to determine who attends protests. ICE could seek to continuously monitor immigrants as they embark on new lives. Cities might routinely track their own residents, whether they have reason to suspect criminal activity or not. As with other surveillance technologies, these systems are certain to be disproportionately aimed at minority communities.

While the Amazon Rekongition website says that "you can detect, analyze, and compare faces for a wide variety of user verification, cataloging, people counting, and public safety use cases", it makes no mention of law enforcement use -- although previous versions of the site did.

As shared by Bleeping Computer, ACLU and numerous other civil rights organizations have written an open letter to Jeff Bezos as a result of the findings, saying:

People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom. In overpoliced communities of color, it could effectively eliminate it. The federal government could use this facial recognition technology to continuously track immigrants as they embark on new lives. Local police could use it to identify political protesters captured by officer body cameras. With Rekognition, Amazon delivers these dangerous surveillance powers directly to the government.

Rather than restrict government use of Rekognition, Amazon is helping governments deploy it on both coasts, according to documents obtained by ACLU affiliates in three states. It has provided product support and offered free consulting services to government customers. Amazon has solicited feedback on new product features for law enforcement. Amazon even signed a secrecy agreement with a prominent law enforcement customer. Despite all of this, Amazon imposes no meaningful restrictions on how governments can use Rekognition.

Amazon Rekognition is primed for abuse in the hands of governments

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