Coming to a street near you: Facial recognition by the police via Amazon

Coming to a street near you: Facial recognition by the police via Amazon
A new facial recognition tool has been rolled out by Amazon. But civil rights groups are voicing concern. (Image source: YouTube screencap)

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.

Civil-rights groups are crying foul while citing concerns about the potential misuse of such a tool, which can be utilized on a police officer’s body camera.

Dozens of organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, submitted a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, asking the company to stop the distribution of their new tool. The statement read: “Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color. … With Rekognition, Amazon delivers these dangerous surveillance powers directly to the government.”

But Amazon pushed back in an emailed statement about the program, saying that it had “many useful applications in the real world” and that the firm “requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use” its products.

Rekognition software is already being utilized by law enforcement in the U.S. through pilot programs.

“They have cameras all over the city,” said Ranju Das,  the director of Rekognition of Orlando, Florida. “We analyze the video in real time [and] search against the collection of faces they have.”

Malkia Cyril, executive director for the Center for Media Justice and a Black Lives Matter leader, said, “Technology is a tool; placing a tool in the context of extreme racism and brutality is simply going to produce more extreme racism and brutality. When you add facial recognition to this context, and you add the supercomputing powers of Amazon, what you do is supercharge already existing discrimination to a level that is unprecedented.”

Oregon’s Washington County Sheriff’s Office has been using the new technology for a year.

“It’s not mass surveillance,” Deputy and agency spokesman Jeff Talbot said. “It not real-time surveillance.”

But Talbot says their office has caught a number of people using Rekognition by identifying suspects using photos and video footage supplied by victims.

Meanwhile, the civil rights coalition wrote: “People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government.”

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