Amazon is drawing the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other privacy advocates after an investigation found that it has been marketing powerful facial recognition tools to police. The tool, called'Rekognition', was first released in 2016, but has since been selling it on the cheap to several police departments around the country, listing the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon and the city of Orlando, Florida among its customers. The ACLU and other organizations are now calling on Amazon to stop marketing the product to law enforcement, saying they could use the technology to'easily build a system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone'. Police appear to be using Rekognition to check photographs of unidentified suspects against a database of mug shots from the county jail. 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.
Yesterday, Amazon's quiet Rekognition program became very public, as new documents obtained by the ACLU of Northern California showed the system partnering with the city of Orlando and police camera vendors like Motorola Solutions for an aggressive new real-time facial recognition service. Amazon insists that the service is a simple object-recognition tool and will only be used for legal purposes. But even if we take the company at its word, the project raises serious concerns, particularly around racial bias. Facial recognition systems have long struggled with higher error rates for women and people of color -- error rates that can translate directly into more stops and arrests for marginalized groups. And while some companies have responded with public bias testing, Amazon hasn't shared any data on the issue, if it's collected data at all.
Looks like Orlando won't quit its controversial test of Amazon's facial recognition software after all. The city of Orlando and Orlando Police Department released a joint statement on Monday announcing the city would continue testing Rekognition, Amazon's deep learning facial recognition technology, which has the power to identify every face in a crowd. Last month, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Orlando lawmakers claiming the city started testing the program "without inviting a public debate, obtaining local legislative authorization, or adopting rules to prevent harm to Orlando community members," and demanded that it "immediately" stop using it. Orlando did stop using Rekognition, but the decision wasn't due to the outcry from privacy and anti-surveillance advocates. Instead, the trial contract simply expired, which left open the possibility of using Rekognition again.
Between its cloud services and retail business, Amazon has plenty of angles when it comes to raking in the cash. But CEO Jeff Bezos' ecommerce giant has one more unusual money maker up its sleeve: Selling facial recognition technology to the police. According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amazon recently sold access to its real-time "Rekognition" facial recognition tech to the Orlando, Florida police department, which could potentially use it as part of their future crime-solving goals. "City of Orlando is a launch partner of ours," Rekognition software director Ranju Das said during a developer conference in Seoul, South Korea. "They have cameras all over the city.
The Orlando Police Department said it would not immediately renew a pilot program with Amazon.com for controversial facial-recognition technology, a decision that civil rights advocates claimed as a victory. Orlando had deployed software, known as Rekognition, in five cameras at police headquarters and three cameras downtown during a six-month trial period. "The City of Orlando is always looking for new solutions to further our ability to keep our residents and visitors safe," the city of Orlando and the Orlando Police Department said in a joint statement Monday. "Partnering with innovative companies to test new technology -- while also ensuring we uphold privacy laws and in no way violate the rights of others -- is critical to us as we work to further keep our community safe." The existence of the pilot program was first revealed last month, when the American Civil Liberties Union published documents detailing Amazon's sale of powerful facial-recognition tools to several law enforcement agencies, including in Orlando and Washington County, Ore.