Amazon is selling facial recognition tech to law enforcement

Oscar Cross
May 23, 2018

Civil rights group the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU) says Rekognition has been used by police departments in the state of OR and the city of Orlando, Florida since a year ago, despite the misgivings of staff and apparently with little OR no public consultation.

Law enforcement agencies in Florida and OR are using the service for surveillance, according to the ACLU. One bill revealed that Amazon charged $33.95 for 277,461 images processed in a month.

Rekognition, despite being cheaper than competing systems from NEC and other traditional vendors, is superior in several respects. As people appear on camera - four exiting a vehicle, one walking a dog - the system began tracking them, displaying the path they walked in colored dots. It can also recognize up to 100 people in a single image. "Amazon should never be in the business of aiding and abetting racial discrimination and xenophobia - but that's exactly what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is doing when he sells these loosely regulated facial recognition tools to local police departments".

"City of Orlando is a launch partner of ours", Das said.

"If police are looking for an African-American suspect, they may miss even if that person is in their database - it may not find that person", she said. Whatever the reason may be, the result translates to police, using Amazon's AI-powered facial recognition system, to potentially track anyone - not just the suspects in a particular criminal case.

Amazon requires customers abide by the law and be responsible when using Rekognition, it added.

Rekognition's commercial customers include the image-sharing network Pinterest and the directory website Spokeo.

In a statement, Orlando police spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Bernal said OPD's use of Rekognition is "extremely restricted" - limited to eight city-owned cameras and using facial imaging only from a "handful" of officers who volunteered to test the technology.


Amazon claims that Rekognition can identify people in real-time by instantaneously searching databases containing tens of millions of faces.

Rekognition is already being used by the Orlando Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR, according to documents the ACLU obtained under Freedom of Information requests.

The statement also says the department "is not using the technology in an investigative capacity or in any public spaces at this time".

Government use of facial-recognition software has raised concerns among civil rights groups that maintain it can be used to quiet dissent and target groups such as undocumented immigrants and black rights activists.

Amazon contends that it makes no sense to block emerging technologies exclusively on the fear of how they might be misused in future, pointing out that our "quality of life would be much worse" if we failed to capitalise on the potential benefits. A 2011 study found that systems developed in China, Japan, and South Korea had more trouble distinguishing between Caucasian faces than East Asians.

Then there's the issue of privacy. 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 ACLU of Northern California is shining more light on the tech this week, however, after announcing that it had obtained documents shedding more light on the service it believes "raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns". As far as we know, it can't track you in real time.

Update at 7 p.m.

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