After internal emails (pdf) published by the ACLU on Tuesday revealed that Amazon has been aggressively selling its facial recognition product to law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S., privacy advocates and civil libertarians raised grave concerns that the retailer is effectively handing out a "user manual for authoritarian surveillance" that could be deployed by governments to track protesters, spy on immigrants and minorities, and crush dissent.
"People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom. In overpoliced communities of color, it could effectively eliminate it."
—Privacy advocates"We know that putting this technology into the hands of already brutal and unaccountable law enforcement agencies places both democracy and dissidence at great risk," Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice, said in a statement in response to the ACLU's findings. "Amazon should never be in the business of aiding and abetting racial discrimination and xenophobia—but that's exactly what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is doing."
First unveiled in 2016, "Rekognition" was explicitly marketed by Amazon as a tool for "tracking people," and it has already been put to use by law enforcement agencies in Florida and Oregon.
What we learned from the records: for far less than the monthly cost of Amazon Prime, a law enforcement agency can build a face surveillance system. This is exactly what the Washington County Sheriff in Oregon did. It also built an app for deputies to use. 7/ pic.twitter.com/uDyYfsR59X
— Matt Cagle (@Matt_Cagle) May 22, 2018
While Amazon suggests in its marketing materials that Rekognition can be used to track down "people of interest" in criminal cases, ACLU and dozens of pro-privacy groups argued in a letter (pdf) to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Tuesday that the product is "primed for abuse in the hands of governments" and poses a "grave threat" to marginalized groups and dissidents.
Highlighting "the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments—such as undocumented immigrants or black activists—will be targeted for Rekognition surveillance," the coalition of advocacy groups urged Amazon to "act swiftly to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties, including those of its own customers, and take Rekognition off the table for governments."
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"People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government," the groups concluded. "Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom. In overpoliced communities of color, it could effectively eliminate it."
The ACLU investigation found that Amazon has not been content to simply market and sell Rekognition to law enforcement agencies—it is also offering "company resources to help government agencies deploy" the tool.
As the ACLU's Matt Cagle and Nicole Ozer write in a blog post on Tuesday,
In emails between Amazon and Washington County employees, the company offers the expertise of the Rekognition product team, troubleshoots problems encountered by the county, and provides "best practices" advice on how to deploy the service. In what Orlando's police chief praises as a "first-of-its-kind public-private partnership," Amazon promised free consulting services to build a Rekognition "proof of concept" for the city. Rekognition face surveillance is now operating across Orlando in real-time, according to Amazon, allowing the company to search for "people of interest" as footage rolls in from "cameras all over the city."
"Once a dangerous surveillance system like this is turned against the public, the harm can't be undone," Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director for the ACLU of California, said in a statement on Tuesday. "Particularly in the current political climate, we need to stop supercharged surveillance before it is used to track protesters, target immigrants, and spy on entire neighborhoods. We're blowing the whistle before it's too late.”