ACLU Wants Amazon To Quit Peddling ‘Rekognition’ Facial-Recognition API To Law Enforcement

Civil liberties groups fear 'Big Brother' abuses as software tracks people in real time.

Reed Saxon / AP Images

Civil liberties groups fear 'Big Brother' abuses as software tracks people in real time.

Civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are concerned that low-cost facial recognition software marketed by online retail giant Amazon to law enforcement agencies could lead to chilling abuses, allowing police to track millions of people in real time.

The Associated Press reports that software sold by Amazon Web Services (AWS), known as Rekognition, is already being used by the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon to compare photos of unidentified suspects to a database of more than 300,000 mugshots collected from the jail since 2001.

“We are not mass-collecting. We are not putting a camera out on a street corner,” Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office said in the Associated Press story, published Tuesday in the LA Times. “We want our local community to be aware of what we’re doing, how we’re using it to solve crimes — what it is and, just as importantly, what it is not.”

According to the report, the office spent only about $400 to upload some 305,000 mugshots into the program and then about $6 per month in fees to continue the service.

Orlando, Florida, agencies may also be joining the growing number of companies and agencies to use the software to “use existing city resources to provide real-time detection and notification of persons-of-interest, further increasing public safety,” according to the Associated Press story.

According to documents obtained by the Associated Press, that city is also taking part in a pilot program to use the software with “smart” camera technology throughout the municipality.

The Associated Press reported that the City of Orlando refused an interview request, but issued a statement regarding the use of Rekognition software.

“The purpose of a pilot program such as this is to address any concerns that arise as the new technology is tested,” the statement said. “Any use of the system will be in accordance with current and applicable law. We are always looking for new solutions to further our ability to keep the residents and visitors of Orlando safe.”

AWS Rekognition Leader Randju Das gave a presentation on the software and its applications during a summit in Seoul, South Korea, earlier this month.

In a video of the presentation posted on YouTube, Das outlined the varied uses of the software for public safety, commerce, and entertainment.

He said the program could identify potential suspects in real time, making it easier for law enforcement to act quickly in apprehending them.

While the benefits and costs of this software seem large, civil liberties experts see dangers to basic freedoms and the American way of life.

“This raises very real questions about the ability to remain anonymous in public spaces,” Associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center Clare Garvie said in the Associated Press story.

Garvie compared the technology to police going through a crowd of protestors and getting identification from everyone.

Because the software measures what is a biometric measurement – of someone’s face – it is much more invasive than simply taking photos or videos of those gathered and comparing them to other photos later.

In addition to law enforcement, the Amazon software is being used by a number of companies including Pinterest and the Washington Post, according to Amazon.

The Post is also owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.