Amazon Teams Up With Government to Deploy Dangerous New Facial Recognition Technology

Amazon, which got its start selling books and still bills itself as “Earth’s most customer-centric company,” has officially entered the surveillance business. 

The company has developed a powerful and dangerous new facial recognition system and is actively helping governments deploy it. Amazon calls the service “Rekognition.” 

Marketing materials and documents obtained by ACLU affiliates in three states reveal a product that can be readily used to violate civil liberties and civil rights. Powered by artificial intelligence, Rekognition can identify, track, and analyze people in real time and recognize up to 100 people in a single image. It can quickly scan information it collects against databases featuring tens of millions of faces, according to Amazon

Amazon is marketing Rekognition for government surveillance. According to its marketing materials, it views deployment by law enforcement agencies as a “common use case” for this technology. Among other features, the company’s materials describe “person tracking” as an “easy and accurate” way to investigate and monitor people. Amazon says Rekognition can be used to identify “people of interest,” raising the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments — such as undocumented immigrants or Black activists — will be seen as fair game for Rekognition surveillance. It also says Rekognition can monitor “all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports,” at a time when Americans are joining public protests at unprecedented levels

Amazon’s Rekognition raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns. Today, the ACLU and a coalition of civil rights organizations demanded that Amazon stop allowing governments to use Rekognition. 

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Tell Amazon to get out of the surveillance business

Amazon not only markets Rekognition as a law enforcement service, it is helping governments deploy it. Amazon lists the city of Orlando, Florida, and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon among its customers. Upon learning this, the ACLU Foundations of California coordinated with the ACLU of Oregon and the ACLU of Florida on public records requests to learn more. 

The documents we obtained indicate that the Washington County sheriff and the city of Orlando became Rekognition customers in 2017. Washington County has since built a database of at least 300,000 mugshot photos to use in coordination with Rekognition. It also built a mobile app for its deputies to quickly scan for a match against the county’s database by submitting images obtained from surveillance or other sources. 

Amazon is providing company resources to help government agencies deploy Rekognition. In emails between Amazon and Washington County employees, the company offers the expertise of the Rekognition product team, troubleshoots problems encountered by the county, and provides “best practices” advice on how to deploy the service. In what Orlando’s police chief praises as a “first-of-its-kind public-private partnership,” Amazon promised free consulting services to build a Rekognition “proof of concept” for the city. Rekognition face surveillance is now operating across Orlando in real-time, according to Amazon, allowing the company to search for “people of interest” as footage rolls in from “cameras all over the city.” 

In the records, Amazon also solicits feedback and ideas for “potential enhancements” to Rekognition’s capabilities for governments. Washington County even signed a non-disclosure agreement created by Amazon to get “insight into the Rekognition roadmap” and provide additional feedback about the product. The county later cited this NDA to justify withholding documents in response to the ACLU’s public records request. 

The documents also revealed that Amazon offered to connect Washington County with other Amazon government customers interested in Rekognition — as well as a body camera manufacturer. Indeed, Amazon’s promotional materials previously recommended that law enforcement use Rekognition to identify people in police body camera footage. The company removed mention of police body cameras from its site after the ACLU raised concerns in discussions with Amazon. That appears to be the extent of its response to our concerns. This and other profoundly troubling surveillance practices are still permissible under the company’s policies. 

With Rekognition, a government can now build a system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone. If police body cameras, for example, were outfitted with facial recognition, devices intended for officer transparency and accountability would further transform into surveillance machines aimed at the public. With this technology, police would be able to determine who attends protests. ICE could seek to continuously monitor immigrants as they embark on new lives. Cities might routinely track their own residents, whether they have reason to suspect criminal activity or not. As with other surveillance technologies, these systems are certain to be disproportionately aimed at minority communities. 

Because of Rekognition’s capacity for abuse, we asked Washington County and Orlando for any records showing that their communities had been provided an opportunity to discuss the service before its acquisition. We also asked them about rules governing how the powerful surveillance system could be used and ensuring rights would be protected. Neither locality identified such records. In fact, Washington County began using Rekognition even as employees raised questions internally. In one email, a Washington County employee expressed the concern that the “ACLU might consider this the government getting in bed with big data.” That employee’s prediction was correct. 

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. 

If Rekognition is not reined in, its use is also certain to spread. The records we obtained show that law enforcement agencies in California and Arizona have contacted Washington County asking about Rekognition. So have multiplefusion centers,” which collect information about people for dissemination across agencies at the local and federal level. 

Amazon has publicly opposed secretive government surveillance. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, has himself criticized Trump administration’s discriminatory Muslim ban. But actions speak louder than words, and Amazon’s efforts to deploy this technology run counter to its proclaimed values and risk harm to the company’s customers and their communities. 

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NAACP

If you are doing nothing wrong, why be afraid of the inevitable future?

Anonymous

Not sure how Amazon thought this would be an acceptable move. Amazon has an Alexa in every house, they have all our data in the cloud, all our shopping habits, our television watching habits, our credit card info, etc etc. All this is built on trust. Why would they weaken that trust just to earn a few bucks at the expense of a police state? I actually trusted you Amazon. Gonna start finding alternatives to your sprawling empire.

Anonymous

Some of you might want to watch the Netflix movie 'ANON'. Really gets you think about how far things should be allowed to go.

"Its not that I have something to hide, its that I have nothing I want you to see."

Anonymous

U loser cocksuckers are so hypocritical...if u r so concerned about us, how can u turn a deaf ear to the deep state's bullshit? Fuck you.

Anonymous

As a Washington County resident, this is the first I've heard of this. I for one am never a fan of giving up rights to solidify safety, because the reality is, you're never going to get the levels of safety that you think you will, and it only opens you up to others interfering in your life more. I hope something can be done to shut it down.

Anonymous

I am a victim of Washington County Fabricated Evidence used to convict a innocent man for invasion of privacy recently and my discovery is such:

The biggest threatening problem people are not aware of is illegitimate authority where the state employs to many criminals in the guise of law and justice who have the ultimate power to exploit their victims often abusing their powers to the extreme. I personally have witnessed many officials to do so in law enforcement in all areas. I specify by experience with the number one offender being some Prosecutors (Attorneys working for the state as DA), Judges, Police and Sheriffs Officials and last but not least are Federal Agents also.
The biggest threatening problem people are not aware of is that of illegitimate authority, where the state employs to many criminals in the guise of law and justice who have the ultimate power to exploit their victims and often abusing their powers to the extreme. I personally have witnessed many officials to do so in law enforcement in all areas. I specify by experience with the number one offender being some Prosecutors (Attorneys working for the state as DA), Judges, Police and Sheriffs Officials and last but not least, Federal Agents.

Misconduct or Incompetence are not the only problems, it is color of law violations of peoples rights, abuse and neglect of true justice and in theory what amounts to simple criminal deeds committed by government officials. Who holds corrupt officials accountable when they all are corrupted? Nobody! This is why America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, criminals in power convicting innocent persons for profit.
Try prove my accusation wrong, it is true if you conceptualize it correctly.

Anonymous

I wish articles like this would explain what exactly the problem with Rekognition is?
My face could be recognized in a crowd, so what? Why is this such a big deal?

While I was once a supporter, in my mind the ACLU has become as extremist and unbending as the NRA.

Anonymous

There are so many good reasons for using this technology (missing persons, crime fighting, medical emergencies, etc) - it seems to me that the people objecting to its use would be better advised to put their efforts into making sure it is used beneficially & openly & that the government & agencies adopting it's use are democratically elected & not corrupt. I bet Amazon is not the only one in this field.

Victim of Organ...

The biggest threatening problem people are not aware of is that of illegitimate authority, where the state employs to many criminals in the guise of law and justice who have the ultimate power to exploit their victims and often abusing their powers to the extreme. I personally have witnessed many officials to do so in law enforcement in all areas. I specify by experience with the number one offender being some Prosecutors (Attorneys working for the state as DA), Judges, Police and Sheriffs Officials and last but not least, Federal Agents.

Misconduct or Incompetence are not the only problems, it is color of law violations of peoples rights, abuse and neglect of true justice and in theory what amounts to simple criminal deeds committed by government officials. Who holds corrupt officials accountable when they all are corrupted? Nobody! This is why America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, criminals in power convicting innocent persons for profit. Try prove my accusation wrong, it is true if you conceptualize it correctly.

Anonymous

It's not that I'm doing something wrong that I disagree with this. It's the fact that it is one step closer to a police state. Where they know what were doing at all times. I can remember the first cameras got put up at an intersection now they are every where since those first few cameras has the crime rate dropped absolutely not so it's not a good excuse. We let them do this and then what? They are going to round us up like cattle when that time comes. People police are employed for a reason make them do their jobs don't infringe on our rights to give them a break.

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