ACLU Obtains Documents Showing Amazon Is Handing Out Cheap Facial Recognition Tech To Law Enforcement

from the Prime-membership-not-required dept

More bad news on the privacy front, thanks to one of America’s largest corporations. Documents obtained by the ACLU show Amazon is arming law enforcement agencies with cheap facial recognition tech, allowing them to compare any footage obtained from a variety of sources to uploaded mugshot databases.

The company has developed a powerful and dangerous new facial recognition system and is actively helping governments deploy it. Amazon calls the service “Rekognition.”

Marketing materials and documents obtained by ACLU affiliates in three states reveal a product that can be readily used to violate civil liberties and civil rights. Powered by artificial intelligence, Rekognition can identify, track, and analyze people in real time and recognize up to 100 people in a single image. It can quickly scan information it collects against databases featuring tens of millions of faces, according to Amazon.

It’s already been deployed to several areas around the country, with Amazon acting as the government’s best friend a la AT&T historic proactive cooperation with NSA surveillance efforts. The documents [PDF] obtained by the ACLU show Amazon has been congratulated by local law enforcement officials for a “first-of-its-kind public-private partnership,” thanks to its deployment efforts. On top of providing deployment assistance, Amazon also offers troubleshooting and “best practices” for officers using the tech. It has even offered free consulting to agencies expressing an interest in Rekognition.

These efforts aren’t surprising in and of themselves, although Amazon’s complicity in erecting a law enforcement surveillance structure certainly is. Amazon is looking to capture an underserved market, and the more proactive it is, the more market it will secure before competitors arrive. To further cement its position in the marketplace, Amazon is limiting what law enforcement agencies can say about these public-private partnerships.

In the records, Amazon also solicits feedback and ideas for “potential enhancements” to Rekognition’s capabilities for governments. Washington County even signed a non-disclosure agreement created by Amazon to get “insight into the Rekognition roadmap” and provide additional feedback about the product. The county later cited this NDA to justify withholding documents in response to the ACLU’s public records request.

Documents also suggest Amazon is looking to partner with body camera manufacturers to add its facial recognition tech. This is something body camera manufacturers are already considering, and licensing an established product is far easier than building one from the ground up.

The system is powerful and can apparently pull faces from real-time footage to compare to databases. It also allows agencies to track individuals. It puts passive cameras on surveillance steroids, giving any person who strolls past a government camera a chance to be mistaken for a wanted suspect. To date, facial recognition software has managed to generate high numbers of false positives, while only producing a handful of valid arrests.

These efforts have been deployed with zero input from the largest stakeholder in any government operation: the general public.

Because of Rekognition’s capacity for abuse, we asked Washington County and Orlando for any records showing that their communities had been provided an opportunity to discuss the service before its acquisition. We also asked them about rules governing how the powerful surveillance system could be used and ensuring rights would be protected. Neither locality identified such records.

It may be the NDAs discourage public discussion, but more likely the agencies acquiring the tech knew the public wouldn’t be pleased with having their faces photographed, tracked, stored indefinitely, and compared to pictures stored in law enforcement databases. And if public agencies are unwilling to discuss these programs with the public, they’re far less likely to create internal policies governing use of the tech. Amazon’s push to secure a sizable portion of this market is only making things worse, and its use of NDAs is going to further distance these public agencies from being accountable to the people they serve.

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Companies: aclu, amazon

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Comments on “ACLU Obtains Documents Showing Amazon Is Handing Out Cheap Facial Recognition Tech To Law Enforcement”

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Sharur says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Having fingers in many pies does not make a Trust.

Otherwise large stores such as Sears, Walmart, Vons/Pavilions and Costco would be subject to anti-Trust legislation, simply for existing.

There is nothing monopolistic about this, simply because they are big and have large cash flows.

There are valid privacy concerns here, but not monopolistic ones, from what I can see.

Anonymous Coward says:


Marketing materials and documents obtained…

[BOLO] Be on the lookout for links between facial recognition and cell phone location technology.

Think about a system to compare a surveillance photo against drivers license photos. The official id photos would be selected by their correlation with the cell phone numbers active in the vicinity of the surveillance camera.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

At this point it really should be illegal...

…for a government agent of any kind to sign an NDA.

Any NDA signed by a federal or state agent should be null and void, and maybe a fine should be imposed on the signing official.

Also treason should be added to their rapsheet.

It’s not like that will become law anytime soon, but it should be.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: At this point it really should be illegal...

Treason has a very specific (and extremely difficult to change, as its written into the Constitution) definition in the US.

Please stop using that word; I don’t think it means what you think it means.
Unless you think it means this:

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”

So Civil War is treason, violent overthrow of the government is treason, and possibly joining e.g. ISIS is treason, but little else is.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: At this point it really should be illegal...

Agreed on the first half(no NDA’s for government contracts that allow them to stonewall courts/people trying to find out what they’re doing), disagree on the second(definition of treason).

As the AC pointed out, ‘treason’ is already well defined, and I personally do not trust that it would remain even remotely constrained if someone tried to come along and ‘update’ it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: At this point it really should be illegal...

As the AC pointed out, ‘treason’ is already well defined, and I personally do not trust that it would remain even remotely constrained if someone tried to come along and ‘update’ it.

Does this constrain the government in any real way? They can define crimes and set the penalties; is the only restriction that they can’t use the word "treason"?

Sharur says:

Honestly, assuming the cameras running this are in a public place, this doesn’t concern me.

If I am out in public, I am out in public. Any police officer can see me, and they or any member of the public can duplicate this with a cell phone, because that is part of a definition of a public place.

I don’t see an inherent capacity for abuse of this. (Can someone inform me of the privacy issues with this?). Sure it can be used to track people, but it isn’t necessary for that (and we track people all the time, currently).

It could be used by police to harass people, but, as evidenced by current events, its by no means necessary.

Now, certainly, if the cameras running this are secreted away in a private space, then yes this facial identification would be problematic. But the overwhelming problem is the initial invasion of privacy, not the multiplier of facial recognition.

JoeCool (profile) says:

Re: Re:

The problem is that the moment someone who looks vaguely like you commits a crime, YOU will be hassled everywhere you go. There was the case last year where someone was picked by facial recognition as being the perp, and after he proved he wasn’t the guy, he immediately got picked up again for still matching the perp according to facial recognition.

I hate to say it says:

Re: Re: Where's a get out of jail free card when you need one?

You know where this is going? Eventually, police will issue innocent people who trigger the system a “get out of jail free” card with QR codes. You’ll wear your pass on the brim of a hat, like an old-school newspaper reporter with a press pass:

If you fail to wear your “innocent” pass in public after your first false arrest, you can be charged with “impersonating a criminal” and “inciting false arrest.” The fine will cover the cost of chasing you down plus a small processing fee to the red-light camera company that handles the facial recognition contract.

We’ll have a whole class of citizens called “look-alikes”. People will design QR codes into fashionable hats, ball caps, lapel jewelry, and windshield stickers. You can run an “innocent” app on your phone in case the cameras catch your face but not your pass.

At dinner parties, look-alikes will be asked who they resemble. “Oh, I saw the police sketch from 1992–I’m a dead ringer for some rum-runner from Hazzard County, Georgia who drives a ’69 Dodge Charger, if you can believe that. He’s still at large–or maybe he’s dead by now.”

I expect this to hit China first. Tying your social credit score to all your friends’ social credit scores leads to cascade effects if popular celebrity WeChat feeds are compromised to criticize the State. Tens of thousands of followers get “downgraded” by association–to the point where they are banned from train travel. Victims are milling around train stations waiting for the error to be resoled when the system identifies them as vagrants for being stationary for an hour. Hackers add fake crimes, now police respond. The police have been added to the list of criminal faces. Taser-laden drones appear. The more “efficient” the system is, the more dangerous it becomes due to predictability and lack of human judgement.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

There is a huge difference between tens or hundreds of people being able to place you for short periods of time, and a camera and face recognition system that can determine where you were, at least down to a building, for every minute of your life. Having all the records of where you were in one database is far more intrusive than the momentary glimpses of you life available to an unaided individual.

Uriel-238 (profile) says:

Re: Despair

There are some interesting directions this can go.

~ The courts or legislators may decide that knowing where you are all the time is too much information for law enforcement to have without a warrant.

~ We may learn as we have before that too many faces look alike, that facial recognition has a propensity for false positives, in which case a match may never be a positive identification or probable cause.

~ The more mischievous of us may develop ways to inconspicuously alter our faces to either disguise who we are, or even convince the algorithms we’re someone else specifically, as per adversarial inputs against other pattern recognition systems.

~ Facial recognition may go public, so that anyone can download an open-source facial recognition program and its accompanying database of millions, then law enforcement officers who are indiscriminately brutal are murderous can be tracked for the public to watch.

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