Bezos under fire for selling facial recognition tech to law enforcement

Amazon's facial recognition technology is paving the way for its use by law enforcement agencies nationwide.
23 May 2018

Amazon is under fire for selling facial recognition software to the government. Source: AFP

A coalition of civil-rights groups have obtained proof that Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is selling facial recognition technology to law-enforcement agencies in Oregon and Orlando.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California suggest that the technology is being offered to only a few dollars a month, paving the way for a roll-out of technology nationwide.

According to civil rights groups, this is alarming as it could make it possible to surveil vulnerable communities. The documents, obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the two cities adopted the technology without a discussion with its citizens.

More than 40 groups sent a letter to Bezos claiming that the technology from the company’s cloud computing unit was ripe for abuse. The letter underscored how new tools for identifying and tracking people could be used to empower surveillance states.

“People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom. In overpoliced communities of color, it could effectively eliminate it,” said the letter.

Amazon provides the technology it calls “Rekognition” and consulting services to implement the technology, to a variety of users in the market.

The company unveiled the product/solution in late 2016. In a blog post last year, Amazon said a new feature let customers “identify people of interest against a collection of millions of faces in near real-time, enabling use cases such as timely and accurate crime prevention.” Customers provide the data for Amazon’s tool to search.

In Oregon, for example, law enforcement has to upload 300,000 mug shots dating to 2001 into Amazon’s cloud and index them in Rekognition, according to another Amazon blog post.

According to Amazon spokeswoman Nina Lindsey, the technology has many useful purposes and customers have used it to find abducted people and amusement parks have used the program to find lost children.

Even at the royal wedding this past weekend, clients used Rekognition to identify wedding attendees, Lindsey revealed.

In a statement, Amazon Web Services said, “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.” Amazon requires customers abide by the law and be responsible when using Rekognition, it added.

In China, citizens have warmed up to the State using facial recognition technology, and the technology has actually made cities safer and better.

In the city of Guiyang, for example, there are more than 10,000 public cameras help police detect and arrest criminals in as little as 2 minutes. Just last year, the technology led to the apprehension of 375 suspects, including 39 fugitives, according to police. In Shenzhen, police said they can now identify drivers using facial recognition surveillance cameras.

The technology definitely has its benefits, but how its use is governed will make all the difference.