They call Amazon the everything store--and Tuesday, the world learned about one of its lesser-known but provocative products. Police departments pay the company to use facial-recognition technology Amazon says can "identify persons of interest against a collection of millions of faces in real-time." More than two dozen nonprofits wrote to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to ask that he stop selling the technology to police, after the ACLU of Northern California revealed documents to shine light on the sales. The letter argues that the technology will inevitably be misused, accusing the company of providing "a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color." The revelation highlights a key question: What laws or regulations govern police use of the facial-recognition technology?
Ousmane Bah, an 18-year-old college student from New York, filed a lawsuit against Apple on Monday for allegedly relying on facial recognition systems that misidentified him as a serial shoplifter. The suit claims that Apple and its contractor, Security Industry Specialists, caused Bah to suffer emotional distress as a result. Apple has subsequently denied that it uses facial recognition in its stores. According to the lawsuit, Bah received a summons arraignment last summer from a Boston municipal court for the theft of $1,200 worth of products from an Apple Store in the city. The police report indicated that a Security Industry Specialists loss prevention associate saw the theft on a security video and recognized Bah from a similar incident at an Apple Store in Connecticut.
Police departments across the nation are generating leads and making arrests by feeding celebrity photos, CGI renderings, and manipulated images into facial recognition software. Often unbeknownst to the public, law enforcement is identifying suspects based on "all manner of'probe photos,' photos of unknown individuals submitted for search against a police or driver license database," a study published on Thursday by the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology reported. The new research comes on the heels of a landmark privacy vote on Tuesday in San Francisco, which is now the first US city to ban the use of facial recognition technology by police and government agencies. A recent groundswell of opposition has led to the passage of legislation that aims to protect marginalized communities from spy technology. These systems "threaten to fundamentally change the nature of our public spaces," said Clare Garvie, author of the study and senior associate at the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology.
On Tuesday, in an 8-1 tally, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted to ban the use of facial recognition software by city departments, including police. Supporters of the ban cited racial inequality in audits of facial recognition software from companies like Amazon and Microsoft, as well as dystopian surveillance happening now in China. At the core of arguments around the regulation of facial recognition software use is the question of whether a temporary moratorium should be put in place until police and governments adopt policies and standards or it should be permanently banned. Some believe facial recognition software can be used to exonerate the innocent and that more time is needed to gather information. Others, like San Francisco Supervisor Aaron Peskin, believe that even if AI systems achieve racial parity, facial recognition is a "uniquely dangerous and oppressive technology."
The story of how the FBI finally tracked down notorious fugitive Lynn Cozart, using its brand-new, 1 billion facial recognition system, seems tailor-made to disarm even the staunchest of skeptics. Cozart, a former security guard in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, was convicted of deviant sexual intercourse in 1996. According to court filings, he had molested his three juvenile children, two girls and one boy, from 1984 through 1994. It wasn't until May 11, 1995, that the children's mother came forward and told the Pennsylvania State Police what Cozart had been doing. He was convicted, but he failed to show up for his sentencing hearing in April 1996. Federal agents raided his home, interviewed family members and released photos of the man to the general public. In August 2006, the Cozart case was featured in "America's Most Wanted," the national television program, under a segment titled "Ten Years of Hell for Three Children."