Amazon facial recognition software raises privacy concerns with the ACLU

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Video surveillance or “video protection” cameras are seen outside building in the city of Toulouse on August 16, 2017.
The city of Toulouse has installed 25 new cameras and 35 more are being mounted making for a total of 316 cameras placed in all the districts of this southwestern French city. / AFP PHOTO / REMY GABALDA (Photo credit should read REMY GABALDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Amazon hasn’t exactly kept Rekognition under wraps. In late 2016, the software giant talked up its facial detection software in a relatively benign AWS post announcing that the tech was already being implemented by The Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon for suspect identification.

The ACLU of Northern California is shining more light on the tech this week, however, after announcing that it had obtained documents shedding more light on the service it believes “raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns.”

The documents in question highlight Washington County’s database of 300,000 mug shot photos and a mobile app designed specifically for deputies to cross-reference faces. They also note that Amazon has solicited the country to reach out to other potential customers for the service, including a company that makes body cameras.

“People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government,” ACLU attorney Matt Cagle writes in a post tied to the news. “By automating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom, posing a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate. Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely difficult to undo.”

The Washington Post reached out to the county’s public information officer, Deputy Jeff Talbot, in the wake of the report. The deputy told the paper that technology doesn’t stray too far from existing systems. “Our goal is to inform the public about the work we’re doing to solve crimes,” said Talbot. “It is not mass surveillance or untargeted surveillance.”

Amazon similarly deflected suggestions that the technology is inherently intrusive. “As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world,” the company wrote in a statement to TechCrunch. “And, the utility of AI services like this will only increase as more companies start using advanced technologies like Amazon Rekognition. Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology. Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes? Like any of our AWS services, we require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition.” 

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