Congress Members Want Answers After Amazon's Facial Recognition Software Says 28 Of Them Are Criminals

from the but-they're-all-crooks-amirite dept

Hey, American citizens! Several of your Congressional representatives are criminals! Unfortunately, this will come as a completely expected news to many constituents. The cynic in all of us knows the only difference between a criminal and a Congressperson is a secured conviction.

We may not have the evidence we need to prove this, but we have something even better: facial recognition technology. This new way of separating the good and bad through the application of AI and algorithms is known for two things: being pushed towards ubiquity by government agencies and being really, really bad at making positive identifications.

At this point it's unclear how much Prime members will save on legal fees and bail expenditures, but Amazon is making its facial recognition tech ("Rekognition") available to law enforcement. It's also making it available to the public for testing. ACLU took it up on its offer, spending $12.33 to obtain a couple dozen false hits using shots of Congressional mugs.

In a test the ACLU recently conducted of the facial recognition tool, called “Rekognition,” the software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, identifying them as other people who have been arrested for a crime.

The members of Congress who were falsely matched with the mugshot database we used in the test include Republicans and Democrats, men and women, and legislators of all ages, from all across the country.

The bad news gets worse.

The false matches were disproportionately of people of color, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among them civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.).

And here's the chilling lineup of usual suspects according to Amazon's Rekognition:

Using 25,000 publicly-available mugshots and Rekognition's default settings, the ACLU picked up a bunch of false hits in very little time. This is only a small portion of what's available to law enforcement using this system. Agencies have access to databases full of personal info and biometric data for hundreds of thousands of people, including people who've never been charged with a crime in their lives.

The obvious downside to a false hit is, at minimum, the unjustified distribution of identifying info to law enforcement officers to confirm/deny the search results. At most, it will be the loss of freedom for someone wrongly identified as someone else. Recourse takes the form of lawsuits with a high bar for entry and slim likelihood of success, thanks to several built-in protections for law enforcement officers.

Amazon continues to market this system to law enforcement agencies despite its apparent shortcomings. Very little has been written about the successes of facial recognition technology. There's a good reason for this: there aren't that many. There certainly haven't been enough to justify the speedy rollout of this tech by a number of government agencies.

This little experiment has already provoked a response from Congressional members who are demanding answers from Amazon about the ACLU's test results. Amazon, for its part, claims the ACLU's test was "unfair" because it used the default 80% "confidence" setting, rather than the 95% recommended for law enforcement. The ACLU has responded, noting this is the default setting on Rekognition and nothing prompts the user -- which could be a law enforcement officer -- to change this setting to eliminate more false positives. In any event, at least Congress is talking about it, rather than nodding along appreciatively as federal agencies deploy the tech without public consultation or mandated privacy impact reports turned in.

Filed Under: congress, face recognition, john lewis, rekognition
Companies: aclu, amazon


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  1. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
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    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jul 2018 @ 9:43am

    5 of 435 is 1.2%. The ACLU is a few hundred trouble-makers

    out of 200 million Americans#. So this non-story is at best driven by 0.000-something% and then 1.2%, while you ignore a hundred items of high importance. Typical Techdirt Tempest-in-a-Thimble.

    Five members of Congress ... Jimmy Gomez, John Lewis, Luis Gutierrez and Mark DeSaulnier and Sen. Edward Markey

    And anyway, WHAT THE HELL IS THE POINT OF CRITICIZING BETA SOFTWARE?

    Next story, please. Probably have to wait 2 hours for another ginned-up fanboy-feeding re-write from several days ago.

    Using reasonable definition of "American": doesn't include you antis who want it changed to European feudalism or globalism, incoherent malcontents-without-a-cause (not even up to rebels, just grrr and stuff), nor those here illegally.

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