Tech

Amazon's facial recognition software can track you in real time

Amazon's facial recognition software can track you in real time

Civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are concerned that low-priced facial recognition software marketed by online retail giant Amazon to law enforcement agencies could lead to chilling abuses, allowing police to track millions of people in real time.

In what's been called a "recipe for authoritarianism and disaster", Amazon has reportedly been selling a facial recognition software called "Rekognition" to law enforcement agencies in the United States since last fall.

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 ACLU cites Amazon video in which Ranju Das, general manager for Amazon Rekognition, says the programs are being used with Orlando's existing cameras throughout the city.

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".

A facial recognition system used by officials in China connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to pick out targets.

A year later, deputies were using it about 20 times a day - for example, to identify burglary suspects in store surveillance footage. 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. "They have cameras all over the city".

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Amazon said in an emailed statement that it requires customers comply with the law, and if it learns that its services are being "abused by a customer", it suspends that customer's use of its technology. Washington County has taken at least 300,000 mugshots and built a database to use with Rekognition.

Right now police departments in Orlando and OR are using the technology. Company brochures describe use by law enforcement agencies as common case. But now Amazon and Orlando are taking it further, by using facial recognition to spot people in real time.

In one email, an account manager for Amazon Web Services eagerly offered up his or her services to a Washington County, Oregon, employee: "I am the Account Manager for AWS covering Oregon, and I noticed that you were leveraging our new Rekognition service".

Amazon's facial recognition technology, Rekognition, is raising concern among privacy advocates. "Imagine if customers couldn't buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes".

According to The Washington Post, whose owner, Jeff Bezos, also owns Amazon, the Washington County Sheriff's Office in OR pays Amazon an amount between $6 and 12 every month to access the technology. However, the Washington County Sheriff's Office points out, that's not how it's using the technology. The marketing of Rekognition to law enforcement is still in its infancy, but he's anxious it could quickly become dominant, given Amazon's market clout as the world's leading cloud services company.

In the era of so-called predictive policing, technology such as this is only as good as the biases -or, rather, lack thereof-of those interpreting the data, as well as the programming itself.

In response, an Amazon spokesperson pointed out that there are some upsides to such facial recognition technology, including finding lost children at amusement parks, as well as locating people who have been abducted.