Amazon Rekognition in action

Public record documents obtained from two US states reveal that Amazon has entered the surveillance market, where it's been silently advertising its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies.

According to a 147-page report published today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Amazon has been contacting states and advertising "Amazon Rekognition," a deep learning-based facial recognition system that can work against both image and video inputs.

The service launched in late 2016, but ACLU experts discovered its website in 2017. At the time, they noticed two US law enforcement agencies providing testimonials on the Amazon Rekognition website — the Orlando, Florida Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon.

Amazon looking for a foothold as a surveillance tech provider

Using Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests, ACLU investigators obtained communications between the two law enforcement agencies and Amazon.

These documents and emails show that the tech giant is actively marketing its Rekognition technology as a government surveillance system, is offering free support, helps troubleshoot bugs, and provides various other services, all in the hopes of getting a foothold on the rising government surveillance market.

"Amazon's Rekognition raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns," the ACLU said today. The organization is worried 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."

The ACLU raises concerns about future abuse of such systems, for other purposes than looking for suspected criminals, and worries that Amazon's name, brand and reputation may help spread such systems to more state agencies and countries across the world. Furthermore, this technology is quite cheap, with estimated costs for the two law enforcement agencies that have deployed it being placed at around a few tens of dollars per month.

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.

Amazon tried to hide its marketing efforts

ACLU experts said they've reached out to Amazon with their concerns, but the company reacted by removing mentions of law enforcement and body cams from the Rekognition website.

Older versions of the Amazon Rekognition website advertised the service as a tool that law enforcement agencies could use to identify persons of interest by feeding police body cam footage into the Rekognition API.

The current version of the Rekognition website advertises the service as a drop-in solution to process image and video data to find missing persons, text in images, famous persons (celebrities) in submitted content, and "unsafe" content in user-submitted images and videos.

Nonetheless, documents obtained by the ACLU show that Amazon continued to privately market Rekognition as a surveillance solution to law enforcement, with a primer on its facial recognition system.

ACLU and others send open letter to Bezos

The civil rights group is now sounding the alarm on Amazon efforts to market this technology, and together with 35 other civil rights organizations has signed and sent an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos about its Rekognition service.

The letter asks Bezos to "stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure."

"People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government," the letter also reads. "Amazon Rekognition is primed for abuse in the hands of governments. This product poses a grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants, and to the trust and respect Amazon has worked to build. Amazon must act swiftly to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties, including those of its own customers, and take Rekognition off the table for governments."

The ACLU sent the open letter to Bezos knowing that the Amazon CEO was one of the first public figures to criticize Trump's Muslim ban last year. The organization hopes Bezos reconsiders selling Rekognition to governments.

The ACLU has also put up a petition that users can sign and ask Amazon to get out of the surveillance business.

Image credits: Amazon

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