The American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the CEO of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, urging him to halt the sale of facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies this week. The worry, according to the roughly forty civil liberties organizations that co-signed the letter, is that software is too easy to abuse.
The software, known as Rekognition, could be used to unfairly target people of color and immigrants, they say.
“People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom. In overpoliced communities of color, it could effectively eliminate it,” the letter states.
“The federal government could use this facial recognition technology to continuously track immigrants as they embark on new lives. Local police could use it to identify political protesters captured by officer body cameras. With Rekognition, Amazon delivers these dangerous surveillance powers directly to the government.”
Amazon is not the only company marketing facial recognition software, nor is the effort on Amazon’s part a new one – the company debuted Rekognition in 2016. But in Amazon, activists see a unique company that cannot just passively offer such technology but actively push and market for adoption by the nation’s law enforcement agencies.
The tool is a powerful one and its costs make it appealing as well. The product costs only several dollars a month after a $400 set up charge.
“[Amazon] has provided product support and offered free consulting services to government customers. Amazon has solicited feedback on new product features for law enforcement. Amazon even signed a secrecy agreement with a prominent law enforcement customer,” the ACLU’s reader continues.
“Despite all of this, Amazon imposes no meaningful restrictions on how governments can use Rekognition.”
One in two American adults, 117 million in total, is in a face recognition network according to the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University. CPT also points out that no law enforcement agency operates their facial recognition databases under regulation by the government.
Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office entered all driver’s licenses photographs and mug shots from the country of Honduras into its database, it says. The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office runs 8,000 monthly searches on the faces of seven million Florida drivers—without requiring that officers have even a reasonable suspicion before running a search.
Proponents of the technology, from Amazon and companies like it, point out the benefits of facial recognition software. The tool can be used to locate missing children, for example.
Officials that have used Rekognition have found it easy to use and powerful. According to an email obtained by the ACLU through a freedom of information request, the Sr. Information Systems Analyst of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon had uploaded hundreds of thousands of images to the platform within weeks of his department purchasing the product. They were also hoping to roll out use of the platform to other agencies in the area.
“I currently have close to 300,000 images that I uploaded to S3 (all booking photos from our jail since 2001),” the analyst, whose name was redacted, wrote. “I am hoping to expand our backend of images to every law enforcement agency in the metro Portland area. And possibly even to all of Oregon and beyond.”
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