Amazon’s Rekognition becomes a lightning rod

Amazon is giving police departments a new tool in their crime-fighting arsenal — a move that has some civil rights groups up in arms.

The Amazon Rekognition platform is an image and video analysis system that is able to identify objects, people, text, scenes and activities occurring in a piece of media. According to Amazon, the technology offers facial analysis and recognition capabilities that can detect, analyze, and compare faces for a wide variety of user verification, cataloging, people counting and public safety use cases.

According to articles in and , Rekognition technology is already in place and in the field at some law enforcement organizations.

[Read: Ben-Gurion University Develops Smart Camera Technology]

Perhaps not surprisingly, the ACLU and other of civil rights groups have called on Amazon founder Jeff Bezos to stop offering Rekognition to those organizations. Police in multiple regions have partnered with Amazon on surveillance projects, the article said, including an Orlando proof-of-concept situation — which lets Amazon search for people of interest through city cameras — as well an Oregon initiative in Washington County that lets officers scan people to see if they turn up in a mugshot database.

The Post reported that sheriff’s office of Washington County built a database of 300,000 mug shots of suspected criminals that could be scanned via Rekognition 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, a county spokesman told the Post.

In a letter addressed to Bezos, a group of civil liberty groups on May 22 expressed deep concerns about Rekognition and demanded that Amazon “stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country.”

“People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government,” the group said in its letter. “Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom.”

Amazon spokeswoman Nina Lindsey told the Washington Post that Amazon requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use AWS services. “When we find that AWS services are being abused by a customer, we suspend that customer’s right to use our services,” she said. Amazon Web Services is the company’s cloud software division that houses the facial recognition program.

She said the technology has been used by amusement parks to locate lost children and during the royal wedding this past weekend to identify wedding attendees.

The Post said Axon, a manufacturer of Taser electroshock weapons and the wearable body cameras for police, has also expressed interest in pursuing facial recognition for its body-worn cameras.

Amazon publicly introduced Rekognition in November 2016. It is one of several companies selling facial recognition and image-scanning technologies, including Microsoft with its Facial Recognition API.

Washington County Deputy Jeff Talbot told the Post that the program was not operating secretly and that law enforcement uses a number of different technologies — like jail booking photos, which are publicly available — to scan photos and compare the images against footage of actual suspects in an effort to ensure 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 said.

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