Amazon is selling real-time facial-recognition services to the police and it’s being used to store thousands of mugshots
Culturally speaking, surveillance is treated differently country by country. 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. By publicising the software, some could read an implicitly menacing message to dissidents: if we can watch criminals, we can watch you.
It was easy to feel a sense of relief that such worrying encroachments of civil liberties still feel culturally off limits in the West, but the truth is that these things happen here too: there’s just more of an incentive to keep things on the down-low.
Case in point: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Northern California has obtained documents showing how police forces in Orlando and Oregon’s Washington County are using Amazon’s facial-recognition software for real-time use on police body cameras and municipal surveillance systems. Nondisclosure agreements have prevented the exposure of this partnership until now.
Your first reaction to this might be to wonder why Amazon has facial recognition software in the first place – after all, it doesn’t seem to be part of its core business model. The software, called Rekognition, was created in late 2016 and sold as part of the Amazon Web Services Cloud. Its uses go from the well-meaning (identification of lost children in amusement parks) to the benign (identifying guests at the royal wedding), but unsurprisingly its use in police surveillance isn’t something that appears prominently in customer-facing marketing literature – though it is in there.
Nonetheless, The Washington Post has discovered that the sheriff’s office of Washington County has built a database of 300,000 mugshots that can be used with Rekognition in real-time. This apparently costs the country between $6 and $12 a month, which feels unnervingly cheap.
To be entirely fair to Amazon, it has publicised the extent of the project in Orlando – just a safe 7,500 miles away at the AWS conference in Seoul. There, Rekognition project director Ranju Das told the crowd: “There are cameras all over the city. Authorised cameras are streaming the data to Kinesis video stream…. We analyse that data in real time and search against the collection of faces that they have. Maybe they want to know if the mayor of the city is in a place, or there are persons of interest they want to track.”
Unsurprisingly, where Amazon sees convenience, the ACLU sees trouble. “By automating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom, posing a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate,” the group wrote. “Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely difficult to undo.”
Amazon’s response is clear: if a client is using Rekognition in an unlawful or irresponsible manner, it will put a stop to it. Otherwise it sees the technology as an essential part of our future. “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology,” the company wrote in a widely circulated statement. “Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?”