ACLU tells AWS: Stop selling facial recognition tools to the government

Georgia Reed
May 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 artificial intelligence-powered system can analyze faces and nearly immediately run them through larger databases featuring tens of millions of faces to produce a similar result. The information it collects can then be scanned against databases featuring tens of millions of people, the ACLU said. Rekognition can find, identify, and track people in real time, and was recently used for a cute-yet-ethically-dubious "who's who?" broadcast of the recent royal wedding. The organization is anxious about the concept of "secret surveillance", a term used to describe governments that monitor citizens at all times under the guise of looking for "persons of interest".

Of course, the problem is that these can also be used for nefarious purposes, such as tracking political protesters, members of activist groups such as Black Lives Matter, and immigrants, as well as simply spying on neighborhoods with no reasonable suspicion established to do so.

"Rekognition marketing materials read like a user manual for authoritarian surveillance", said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director for the ACLU of California, in a statement.

The Washington County Sheriff's Office based in OR is using Rekognition to filter through imaging data captured by a citywide camera network and then compare it against a database of 300,000 faces. You may remember a few months ago that China seemed pretty proud of its facial recognition software, which was effectively catching wanted criminals in Zhengzhou. The county even signed a non-disclosure agreement created by Amazon.

KOIN 6 News asked Talbot whether the employee's email that was released in the public records request to the ACLU indicated plans to expand the sources for database images.

Amazon is defending its tech.

"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", the ACLU said.

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The concern is that this facial recognition surveillance system will violate people's rights and target communities of color.

Orlando Police say while piloting the program, they're only using facial imaging from their own officers who volunteered on eight city-owned cameras.

What's more, it said, these technologies would be disproportionately aimed at minority communities.

In February of a year ago, before the publicity wave, Mr. Adzima told an Amazon representative in an email that the county's lawyer was anxious the public might believe "that we are constantly checking faces from everything, kind of a Big Brother vibe". But it's not just the Washington County Sheriff's office that is sold on Rekognition.

The programs use artificial intelligence technology to "identify the objects, people, text, scenes and activities, as well as detect any inappropriate content", according to the Amazon website.

More than three dozen civil rights organizations, led by the ACLU, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Tuesday, demanding his company stop providing government agencies with facial recognition technology.

Amazon has helped various USA jurisdictions use Rekognition, said the letter, citing public records obtained by affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union.

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