Amazon’s facial recognition technology, Rekognition, is raising concern among privacy advocates. The American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups have issued a letter calling out the potential for abuse of the system among law enforcement, and asking Amazon to stop selling it to government agencies. Additionally, the letter highlights a lack of oversight of how technology like this is being used.
Rekognition is image recognition technology capable of discerning everything from inanimate objects to faces that Amazon launched in November of 2016. Amazon’s marketing materials boast that its technology can recognize faces in real-time and includes a feature called Person Tracking, which can monitor a single person across camera shots; the Amazon software was used last weekend by Sky News to identify guests at the royal wedding. But along with its cloud storage services, Amazon also markets and sells Rekognition to law enforcement agencies like Florida’s Orlando Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon.
“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, posing a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate. Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely difficult to undo,” writes the ACLU.
Critics have also raised concerns about the accuracy of face recognition systems, especially those used by police. Researchers at Georgetown University estimate there are more than 130 million American adults in criminal facial recognition databases in the U.S.
In a response to the New York Times, a spokesperson for Amazon Web Services said the technology is not specifically meant for law enforcement, and that, as with all of the company’s services, A.W.S. required customers to comply with the law and to be responsible when using it. A spokesman for the Washington County Sheriff’s office told the Times it was not using the technology to surveil citizens en masse but to assist in criminal investigations.
But in a presentation this month in Korea one A.W.S. executive said that Rekognition could be used in Orlando to locate the city’s mayor in real-time through surveillance cameras. A spokesman for the Orlando Police Department said the department was testing Amazon’s service but had no plans to use the technology to track the location of elected officials.
The letter comes as police departments are increasingly adopting body-worn cameras that produce mountains of video. A number of companies are developing facial recognition technology and other artificial intelligence software that can be used to better analyze that video. Microsoft, which also sells cloud storage to law enforcement, offers its own face recognition tool. In their letter, however, the civil rights groups only mention Amazon, noting that previously “Amazon has opposed secret government surveillance” and that its CEO Jeff Bezos had “personally supported First Amendment freedoms.”