Should Amazon Be Selling Its Facial Recognition Software To Police?

Police forces in the US have been buying technology from Amazon that can recognise tens of millions of faces in real time.

Amazon Rekognition is an image and video analysis service that can identify and categorise its captured content. As well as being able to pinpoint objects, scenes, and activities in an image or video, it’s also capable of highly accurate facial recognition and analysis and can count, catalogue and track people in any image or video while cross comparing them to a vast database of tens of millions of faces.

For some civil rights organisations, this is a serious concern. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called Amazon’s Rekognition software “a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of colour.”

It was through a Freedom of Information request that the ACLU obtained documents, including emails between Amazon staff and law enforcement agencies, that showed police in the city of Orlando, Florida and the sheriff’s department in Washington County, Oregon had been customers of the service since 2017.

In Oregon, a database of 300,000 mugshots now connects a mobile app used by officers who are instantaneously able to cross reference anyone’s face with a criminal record contained in the system.

In the uncovered documents, the ACLU also found emails between Amazon and Washington county officials that showed the company had offered the sheriff’s department the expertise of the Rekognition team, had been troubleshooting issues with the technology and had offered ‘best practice’ advice on how to get the full use out of the product. There was even a non-disclosure agreement signed between the two parties.

Meanwhile, in Orlando, Amazon had offered free consultancy to help implement the service in the city so as to build a ‘proof of concept’.  

In a letter sent to Amazon’s Founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, signed by the ACLU and 40 other similar organisations, the group said the tech’s availability to governments posed “a grave threat to communities, including people of colour and immigrants” and implored the exec to “take Rekognition off the table for governments”.

Photo by Nathaniel Dahan

An advanced weapon in the crime fighting arsenal    

In a statement defending the technology, Amazon said: “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.

“Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?”

The company also pointed out that the tech had proved useful in a number of situations, including identifying and tracking down lost children.

At a conference in Seoul in April, Director of Amazon Rekognition Ranju Das said the armoury of ‘smart’ cameras across Orlando were constantly streaming data that was then analysed, allowing the authorities to track “people of interest”.

In their statement, Amazon also pointed out these sort of examples highlighted the technology’s potential for tackling crime on a macro scale. In an update announcement last November, Amazon Web Services said the tech had reduced the identification of suspects at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office from 2-3 days to mere minutes.

What’s more, it is apparent the tech could be looking forward to further enhancements, including expanding it to police body cameras.

Introducing more surveillance has a direct effect in terms of reducing crime and the planning of criminal activity. A criminal suspect is a lot easier to find with use of this sort of technology and it could operate as an effective deterrent. 

Photo by Christopher Skor

The all-seeing eye

Following last year’s update, Rekognition, which was launched in 2016, is now able to detect up to 100 different faces in a single crowded shot. With regards to its potential inclusion in police body cameras, these figures are a significant concern for civil rights activists like Malkia Cyril.

Cyril warned in 2015 that “Body-worn cameras don’t watch the police, they watch the community being policed, people like me.” Police body cameras were introduced after protests and growing civil unrest over the shooting of unarmed black men by police, such as Michael Brown, who was killed in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. Many observers praised this ostensible step towards transparency and accountability.

Should Amazon’s updated Rekognition software be used in police body cameras, the authorities will be able to identify protesting dissidents – such as those demonstrating against the disproportionate number of black people killed by American police – en masse. Cyril told the Guardian: “That is a recipe for authoritarianism and disaster.”

She said Amazon’s tool wouldn’t protect public safety, but would instead exacerbate the existing institutionalised issues of police racism and brutality. “When you add the supercomputing powers of Amazon, what you do is supercharge already existing discrimination to a level that is unprecedented.”

In the ACLU’s letter to Jeff Bezos, they point out that Amazon has imposed no restrictions on how governments can use the Rekognition technology. The uncovered documents even show that Amazon have offered to put the sheriff’s department in Oregon in touch with other law enforcement agencies interested in the service.

Amazon’s rebuttal of ACLU, which chastises the hypothetical “outlawing” of computers should they be used for illegal activities, rather misses the mark. ACLU didn’t ask for the technology to be “outlawed”, but instead wanted it not to be marketed and sold to governments.

The more that law enforcement agencies work with multinational superpowers like Amazon, the less likely it is that resistive movements to stem the tide of surveillance technology are to succeed. But one thing is for certain, Big Brother is Watching You.

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