A tongue in cheek question, to be sure. The Washington Post reported on May 22nd that Amazon has been virtually giving away facial recognition tools to law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Orlando, according to documents obtained by American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, causing great concern for privacy and civil rights groups.
Amazon is providing the technology, known as Rekognition, as well as consulting services, according to the documents, which the ACLU obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
A coalition of civil rights groups released a letter calling on Amazon to stop selling the program to law enforcement because it could lead to the expansion of surveillance of vulnerable communities. "We demand that Amazon stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country," the groups wrote in the letter.
Amazon spokeswoman Nina Lindsey said that the technology has many useful purposes, including finding abducted people. Amusement parks have used it to locate lost children. During the royal wedding this past weekend, clients used Rekognition to identify wedding attendees, she said. Amazon publicly introduced Rekognition in November 2016.
Privacy advocates note that in a time in which everyone has a camera on their smartphone, cities have put cameras on traffic stops, and police are wearing body cameras, the opportunity to have one's photograph taken, identified, analyzed, and stored forever has grown immensely.
"Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm can't be undone. We're talking about a technology that will supercharge surveillance in our communities," said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Director for the ACLU of Northern California. She said the technology could be used "to track protesters, target immigrants, and spy on entire neighborhoods."
The sheriff's office of Washington County, Oregon built a database of 300,000 mug shots of suspected criminals that officers could have Rekognition scan against footage of potential suspects in real-time. The footage could come from police body cameras and public and private cameras. The county pays Amazon between $6 and $12 a month for the service, according to a county spokesman.
Deputy Jeff Talbot, public information officer for the Washington County Sheriff's Office, said the program has been the subject of several news local stories. He pointed out that jail booking photos are already public and that the software simply allows officers to scan them instantaneously and in real-time, and compare them against footage of actual suspects, which is a valuable contribution to public safety. "Our goal is to inform the public about the work we're doing to solve crimes. It is not mass surveillance or untargeted surveillance."
He could not say how many crimes the program had helped solve and added that the software wasn't always accurate. He said officers were trained not to rely exclusively on the software to make decisions, and it was just an additional tool in the officer's tool kit.
Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay area office, said many people who are booked into jail are not always charged with a crime or are proved innocent. She worried that people's civil rights are violated when law enforcement keeps their images in a database even after they are proved innocent or were never charged. She said Amazon was contributing to these violations by making it easier to scan people's faces, repeatedly subjecting them to surveillance.
Microsoft offers a rival service, called Facial Recognition API. No doubt these services are profitable and will become more profitable in time. But as always, just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. Or that it is legal. While it may be just one tool in a toolkit, it is ripe for misuse.
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Digital Forensics/Information Security/Information Technology