Amazon has some explaining to do. The online retail giant has been caught providing facial recognition technology to law enforcement in Oregon and Orlando, according to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union through a Freedom of Information Act Request. Emails obtained through the request show how Amazon has been advertising and selling its facial recognition product, Rekognition, for only a few dollars a month to law enforcement agencies -- in the hopes that they would encourage other agencies to sign up. The emails also show Amazon has marketed consulting services to law enforcement as well. SEE ALSO: What would an Amazon Alexa robot look like?
Microsoft claims its facial recognition technology just got a little less awful. Earlier this year, a study by MIT researchers found that tools from IBM, Microsoft, and Chinese company Megvii could correctly identify light-skinned men with 99-percent accuracy. But it incorrectly identified darker-skinned women as often as one-third of the time. Now imagine a computer incorrectly flagging an image at an airport or in a police database, and you can see how dangerous those errors could be. Microsoft's software performed poorly in the study.
Civil liberties advocates are calling on Amazon to cease providing facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies. "We demand that Amazon stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country", a coalition let by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) wrote in a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. At issue is a tool known as "Rekognition" that allows users to compare anonymous faces against other images to try and establish identity. An explanatory post on Amazon's website notes that it offers "security and surveillance applications" that include "crime prevention" by identifying "persons of interest". According to emails obtained by the ACLU, multiple law enforcement agencies have harnessed the tool in their investigative work.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy activists are asking Amazon to stop marketing a powerful facial recognition tool to police, saying law enforcement agencies could use the technology to "easily build a system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone." The tool, called Rekognition, is already being used by at least one agency -- the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon -- to check photographs of unidentified suspects against a database of mug shots from the county jail, which is a common use of such technology around the country. 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 tech giant's entry into the market could vastly accelerate such developments, the privacy advocates fear, with potentially dire consequences for minorities who are already arrested at disproportionate rates, immigrants who may be in the country illegally or political protesters. "People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government," the groups wrote in a letter to Amazon on Tuesday.
Amazon's facial recognition technology, Rekognition, continues to cause controversy. In documents recently obtained by BuzzFeed News, we now have a behind-the-scenes look at how Orlando police have been using the technology. After the city let the original pilot program expire after public outcry, Orlando started a second pilot program with an "increased" number of face-scanning cameras. Amazon's Rekognition is described broadly as a visual analysis tool. But, deployed by law enforcement, it can scan faces caught on camera and match them against faces in criminal databases.