Amazon is selling face recognition software to police departments. What could go wrong?
The video game Watchdogs 2 opens with you having to hack into a server and wipe your criminal record clean so the police can’t use a predictive algorithm that predicts future crimes based on past actions. The algorithm leans heavily on using facial recognition databases to keep tabs on citizens.
Of note, the protagonist is Black, and despite gaming’s noted lack of diversity, this seems to indicate that even they understand that such technology would inevitably be weaponized against Black people.
In reality, Amazon’s latest move to sell the police what is being described as a “real-time facial recognition system” by The Verge has us on the precipice of seeing exactly what the scenario in Ubisoft’s video game franchise would look like. According to documents that the ACLU of Northern California accessed, Rekognition, Amazon’s facial recognition software, is already being used by the Orlando Police Department in Florida and the Washington County Police Department in Oregon. Both usages are protected by non-disclosure agreements.
What could go wrong with a capitalist corporation developing facial recognition software for law enforcement and it be kept off the public radar? Spoiler alert: It hasn’t gone well in any iteration of this storyline in science fiction worlds, and it surely will not end well in this one.
In Orlando, the “authorized” cameras dotting the city are all linked to a Kinesis video stream which is monitored and searched against the faces already in Kinesis’ database. According to project director Ranju Das, “This is an immediate response use case… There are cameras all over the city [of Orlando]. Authorized cameras are streaming the data to Kinesis video stream… We analyze that data in real time and search against the collection of faces that they have. Maybe they want to know if the mayor of the city is in a place, or there are persons of interest they want to track.”
The ACLU has already raised concerns about the use of this technology by and with law enforcement officials, and have released a statement condemning such practices:
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… People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government.
The ACLU has also joined other civil rights groups to write Amazon CEO and one of the richest men on the planet Jeff Bezos an open letter demanding that the corporation cease lending such technology to the police.
Though Rekognition officially debuted in 2016 as part of its Amazon Web Services cloud and is used by CSPAN and Pinterest for object recognition and analysis, it was also used during the recent Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to provide facial recognition for Sky Net. Notably, also listed as a client of Rekognition is Motorola Services, makers of police body cameras.
Amazon’s response does very little to ease concerns raised by the ACLU and others: “As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world,” an Amazon representative said in a statement. “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.”