The ACLU and other civil liberties campaigners said Amazon Rekognition could turn into a mass surveillance tool
Amazon has defended its collaboration with US law enforcement agencies to set up face recognition systems, after civil liberties campaigners said the technology was “dangerous”.
The company said new technologies should not be “outlawed” because “because some people could choose to abuse” it.
In a letter sent to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups asked the firm to stop selling its Rekognition technology to law enforcement bodies.
The ACLU published documents obtained through freedom of information requests that included emails sent back and forth between Amazon and police organisations.
The documents detail Amazon’s work with the sheriff’s department of Washington County, in Oregon, and Orlando, Florida police to set up systems that automate the identification of individuals using its cloud-based software.
Such systems can easily be abused, the ACLU argued, adding that Washington County and Orlando had declined to provide any documents on the rules governing how the technology can be used.
“The company has developed a powerful and dangerous new facial recognition system and is actively helping governments deploy it,” the ACLU’s Matt Cagle and Nicole Ozer wrote in a blog post discussing their findings. “People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. By automating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom.”
The ACLU hasn’t disputed Rekognition’s legality, and said it isn’t calling for it to be outlawed. Instead, it’s asking Amazon to stop selling the technology to law enforcement bodies.
The group pointed out that Rekognition could be linked to body-worn police cameras, turning something meant to increase police accountability into a surveillance tool.
“That is a recipe for authoritarianism and disaster,” Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, told The Guardian. “Amazon shouldn’t be anywhere near it, and if we have anything to say about it, they will not be.”
Washington County uses Rekognition along with a mobile app to match images – including those from surveillance – to a database of 300,000 mugshots. Orlando’s programme, a “proof of concept”, according to the ACLU documents, scans imagery from surveillance cameras around the city and matches faces in real time to images held by the city.
The Orlando police department confirmed to the NPR radio network that the technology was part of a “pilot programme” and said it was following applicable laws.
Amazon has not been secretive about Rekognition, which it launched in November 2016 for customers of its Amazon Web Services cloud infrastructure. The company has discussed its work with police on the AWS blog.
It said campaigners were wrongly stigmatising a technology that has been used to help find lost children or other people of interest, and could help fight crime.
“Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology,” the company stated.
But the ACLU said there are too many opportunities for abuse, such as identifying people who attend protests or routinely tracking the movements of citizens.
It pointed out that Amazon has publicly opposed government surveillance.
“Amazon’s efforts to deploy this technology run counter to its proclaimed values and risk harm to the company’s customers and their communities,” Cagle and Ozer wrote.
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