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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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.

Anonymous

Funny how they mention black activists, but its the whites who are shooting up schools and other institutions. This was written by a white devil so i am not surprised.

Anonymous

You're the devil

Anonymous

What's the issue with tracking undocumented immigrants? They're ILLEGAL.

Anonymous

Everyone wanted cameras on cops to play gotcha everytime a criminal gets taught a lesson. Now those cameras will be upgraded to this tech and there is no stopping it.

Anonymous

If my pic is in their system, without my consent and without a criminal record. If "they" are actively recording/monitoring my location are "they" not stalking me (in the criminal sense)?

Anonymous

This technology is not just Amazon's, it's a result of academic research and is widely available from many vendors. ACLU please don't attack one company, regardless of how juicy a target, when the core issue is a technology advance that allows for these capabilities. Instead the pragmatic approach would be to lobby for legislation.

Attacking one company just creates the impression that the ACLU is an advocating an impractical and unproductive tactic to an issue for political or emotional reasons. Keeping up this line of attack will alienate any folks who actually are familiar with the tech and the constitutional issue.

Anonymous

Very good article, I am thinking about learning

Jm Grossfeld

I'm writing on Sept. 16. What is the current status of this fight?

Anonymous

The question becomes whether it will remain legal for a person to wear a clear face-mask in public. (Think the kind of splash-guard clip-on visor that you see on EMT's and lab techs.). These could become as ubiquitous on the street as surgical masks during flu scares in china. Just a little tinting and etching would make it impossible to do the tracking. But then there is the general body-morphology and gait recognition thing as well. Once AI is cheap, it will be possible to assign an AI to track someone and it will be almost like having a human agent tailing you - except the agent will be invisible.
So, there it is, the end of privacy as we have known it.
The question then becomes whether the next generation will even miss it...........

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