Amazon’s decision to market a powerful face recognition tool to police is alarming privacy advocates, who say the tech giant’s reach could vastly accelerate a dystopian future in which camera-equipped officers can identify and track people in real time, whether they’re involved in crimes or not.
It’s not clear how many law enforcement agencies have purchased the tool, called Rekognition, since its launch in late 2016 or since its update last fall, when Amazon added capabilities that allow it to identify people in videos and follow their movements almost instantly.
The Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon has used it to quickly compare unidentified suspects in surveillance images to a database of more than 300,000 booking photos from the county jail — a common use of such technology around the country — while the Orlando Police Department in Florida is testing whether it can be used to single out persons-of-interest in public spaces and alert officers to their presence.
The American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy advocates on Tuesday asked Amazon to stop marketing Rekognition to government agencies, saying they could use the technology to “easily build a system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone.”
That could have potentially dire consequences for minorities who are already arrested at disproportionate rates, immigrants who may be in the country illegally or political protesters, they said.
“People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government,” the groups wrote in a letter to Amazon on Tuesday. “Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom.”
In an emailed statement, Amazon Web Services stressed that it requires all of its customers to comply with the law and to be responsible in the use of its products.
Amazon’s technology isn’t that different from what face recognition companies are already selling to law enforcement agencies. But its vast reach and its interest in recruiting more police departments — at extremely low cost — are troubling, said Clare Garvie, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center.
“This raises very real questions about the ability to remain anonymous in public spaces,” Garvie said.
While police might be able to videotape public demonstrations, face recognition is not merely an extension of photography but a biometric measurement — more akin to police walking through a demonstration and demanding identification from everyone there, she said.
Some police departments, including Seattle, have policies that bar the use of real-time facial recognition in body camera videos.
Amazon released Rekognition in late 2016, and the sheriff’s office in Washington County, west of Portland, became one of its first law enforcement agency customers.
A year later, deputies were using it about 20 times a day — for example, to identify burglary suspects in store surveillance footage. Last month, the agency adopted policies governing its use, noting that officers in the field can use real-time face recognition to identify suspects who are unwilling or unable to provide their own ID, or if someone’s life is in danger.
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