Spy Deals: Amazon Sells Facial Recognition Tech to US Cops for Pennies

Lydia FlemingMay 23, 2018

After internal emails (pdf) published by the ACLU on Tuesday revealed that Amazon has been aggressively selling its facial recognition product to law enforcement agencies throughout the US, privacy advocates and civil libertarians raised grave concerns that the retailer is effectively handing out a "user manual for authoritarian surveillance" that could be deployed by governments to track protesters, spy on immigrants and minorities, and crush dissent.

The city of Orlando, Florida, as well as the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR, are among Amazon's Rekognition customers.

United Kingdom privacy group Big Brother Watch has last week slammed the police's use of facial recognition systems at public events as "dangerous and inaccurate".

Meanwhile, the civil rights coalition wrote: "People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government".

'Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom.

Using public records requests, ACLU's California chapter obtained more than a hundred pages of documents showing Amazon's work with law enforcement agencies in Orlando, Fla., and OR to deploy the technology, which Amazon calls "Rekognition". Last month, the agency adopted policies governing its use, noting that officers in the field can use real-time face recognition to identify suspects who are unwilling or unable to provide their own ID, or if someone's life is in danger. "We are not mass-collecting. We are not putting a camera out on a street corner", said Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

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. Its uses go from the well-meaning (identification of lost children in amusement parks) to the benign (identifying guests at the royal wedding), but unsurprisingly its use in police surveillance isn't something that appears prominently in customer-facing marketing literature - though it is in there.

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A man was mistakenly identified as a shoplifter at New World and there have been warnings from the Privacy Commissioner about the use of the covert surveillance technique.

Amazon is selling facial recognition technology to police across the US.

"City of Orlando is a launch partner of ours", Amazon's Ranju Das recently told a developer conference in Seoul, South Korea.

A department spokesperson sent the News Station a statement saying in part, "The Orlando Police Department is not using the technology in an investigative capacity or utilizing any images of members of the public for testing". "The objective of a pilot program such as this is to address any concerns that arise as the new technology is tested", the statement said.

The concern, as you might guess, is that law enforcement and governments could easily use this for all the wrong reasons. Through an open records request, the ACLU obtained documents showing that in OR, the system made errors when trying to recognize criminal suspects. According to the ACLU, this kind of technology can recognize up to 100 people in a single image.

Law enforcement agencies in Florida and OR are using the service for surveillance, according to the ACLU.

The obvious concern is that it will be used by the authorities to keep track of citizens engaged in lawful protests and demonstrations and used to target undesirable elements, however those might be defined, with a consequent chilling effect on democratic rights.

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