According to documents obtained by American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, Amazon has been sharing its facial recognition software, known as Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Orlando. The rollout of this technology to police departments and other law enforcement agencies across the United States has raised concern from civil rights groups.
According to the documents, which the ACLU obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, Amazon is providing the technology and consulting services.
Civil rights groups speak up
In a letter released to the public last week, several civil rights groups urged Amazon to stop selling the technology due to worries that it could potentially expand surveillance of vulnerable communities, including people of color.
“We demand that Amazon stop powering a government surveillance infrastructure that poses a grave threat to customers and communities across the country,” the groups expressed in the letter.
Nina Lindsey, a spokeswoman for Amazon, referring to Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud software division that houses the facial recognition program, said: “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.”
The technology, according to Lindsey, can be used for several tasks. Rekognition is used to find abducted individuals, find lost children at amusement parks, and even identify attendees at events.
Members of Congress are worried, too
Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have also expressed concern over Amazon’s efforts to sell the technology to law enforcement groups.
CBC chairman Cedric Richmond (D-La.) urged Amazon to be extra careful in its development and deployment of the Rekognition software. He expressed his concern that the technology could have a especially negative impact on communities of color.
“We are troubled by the profound negative unintended consequences this form of artificial intelligence could have for African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and protesters,” he wrote.
“It is quite clear that communities of color are more heavily and aggressively policed than white communities. This status quo results in an oversampling of data which, once used as inputs to an analytical framework leveraging artificial intelligence, could negatively impact outcomes in those oversampled communities.”
The CBC referred to recent trends among law enforcement, including the Department of Justice, to support its stand. Richmond said the Department of Justice under Attorney General Jeff Sessions has vowed “to be more lenient on police accountability and less lenient undocumented families.” He also hammered the FBI’s “irresponsibly worded intelligence assessment establishing a new category of targeted persons the bureau refers to as ‘black identity extremists.’”
“We are worried that the deployment of technology like the one you have developed has a high propensity for misuse,” he wrote.
Another spokesperson for Amazon said Rekognition is not a tool for surveillance and argued that it is merely used to match images from pictures or video with those in a database.
“Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology,” the spokesperson said in defense of the technology. “Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?”
Do the CBC and these civil rights groups have reasons to be worried? That lies in the hands of Amazon and how it decides to proceed with its development, deployment, and overall accountability for any parties that use Rekognition.
Originally published at sanvada.com on May 27, 2018.