Amazon announced its facial recognition service, called Rekognition, back in 2016. The service is advertised as a "deep learning-based image and video analysis", and it has some big names on its customer list, such as HERE.
But the American Civil Liberties Union is worried that private customers aren't the only ones using the technology. In fact, the Rekognition page makes mention of the City of Orlando as one of its customers, but documents obtained by the ACLU paint a more detailed picture.
According to those documents, both the City of Orlando and the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon have been customers of the service since 2017. In Orlando specifically, Rekognition is now operating as a facial surveillance system in real-time.
The union also found out that neither of the two regions mentioned gave the community a chance to discuss the implementation of the system, with questions even being raised internally in the Sheriff's Office in Washington County.
The ACLU fears this kind of technology could be used for malicious purposes, allowing cities and police to surveil communities even without a specific reason to do so. In light of all this, a coalition which incorporates the ACLU and many other organizations has issued a letter to Jeff Bezos asking Amazon to stop selling its Rekognition service to governmental agencies.
Rather than restrict government use of Rekognition, Amazon is helping governments deploy it on both coasts, according to documents obtained by ACLU affiliates in three states. It has provided product support and offered free consulting services to government customers. Amazon has solicited feedback on new product features for law enforcement. Amazon even signed a secrecy agreement with a prominent law enforcement customer. Despite all of this, Amazon imposes no meaningful restrictions on how governments can use Rekognition.
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 letter is co-signed by a large number of organizations for civil rights, but it remains to be seen if their appeal will have any effect on Amazon's strategy for Rekognition.
Privacy has been a major point of concern lately, especially since the Cambridge Analytica scandal which surfaced earlier this year. It's now Amazon's turn to be in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.