- Amazon has been pitching police departments on its facial recognition service, saying it can help law enforcement track persons of interest or identify them in video or photo footage.
- The Rekognition software, first made available in 2016, has been purchased by police departments in Orlando, FL and Washington County, OR, according to marketing information obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). An Orlando Police Department spokesperson told Vice it "is not using the technology in an investigative capacity or in any public spaces at this time."
- The ACLU and other civil rights groups said in a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos that "Amazon Rekognition is primed for abuse in the hands of governments.” The groups added that the technology “poses a grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants, and to the trust and respect Amazon has worked to build.”
Facial recognition technology has gotten more play from government agencies, including use by the military in overseas conflicts and by the Department of Homeland Security in identifying people who overstay their visas. But Amazon’s efforts are attracting significant attention because of the company’s size and influence in the tech sector. Civil rights groups also point to Amazon’s previous statements opposing government surveillance.
The disclosure of Amazon’s efforts offers a new front in the debate over the role of technology in law enforcement, including the debate over police body cams. The availability of big data and more expansive surveillance technology means police departments can take innovative approaches to public safety, but that’s a move that also carries warnings of “Big Brother.”
The initiatives can be effective; Chicago in March said a 28% drop in shootings could be attributed in part to its "smart policing" strategy that included data analysis, gunshot detections and an expanded camera network. But any new technology has to account for public concerns over privacy, and could be best deployed with citizen group involvement. Chicago, for example, includes civilian data analysts in its project.
That perception may already be affecting Amazon’s stance. As Vice points out, the company has already updated one possible use case on its website from "public safety - law enforcement body cams" to "finding missing persons on social media."