Amazon chief Jeff Bezos received a letter Tuesday from the American Civil Liberties Union and its supporters. It demanded he stop selling a little-known service provided by the tech giant to U.S. law enforcement agencies: facial recognition, powered by artificial intelligence.
The tool, dubbed Rekognition, can recognize up to 100 people in a single image and is capable of quickly finding faces in databases containing tens of millions of photos. As per Amazon’s own description of Rekognition, it “makes it easy to add image and video analysis to your applications.”
“You just provide an image or video to the Rekognition API, and the service can identify the objects, people, text, scenes, and activities, as well as detect any inappropriate content. Amazon Rekognition also provides highly accurate facial analysis and facial recognition. You can detect, analyze and compare faces for a wide variety of user verification, cataloging, people counting and public safety use cases.” It’s the same tool that Sky News used to spot people at this past weekend’s royal wedding in the United Kingdom.
According to a six-month investigation by the ACLU, Rekognition has been put to use in a number of agencies across America, including the police department for Orlando, Florida, and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon. In Washington County a Rekognition-based mobile app was built so officers could scan any image and compare it with a database of 300,000 faces, the ACLU found.
A blog on Amazon Web Services from June last year by Chris Adzima, a senior information systems analyst for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, detailed cases in which Rekognition had been put to use. In one case, when a robber left a hardware store with a batch of expensive equipment without paying, his image was run through the facial recognition system and received four hits with more than 80% similarity. One looked familiar, and when one detective searched Facebook for the individual another image was found in which the suspect was wearing the same hoodie as in the hardware store.
“In another example, a surveillance camera captured the image of a man using a credit card that was later reported as stolen,” Adzima wrote. “Because of the low resolution and high angle of the image, it was difficult to determine who it was just by looking at the image. When we ran it through Amazon Rekognition, we received a result that was greater than a 95% match.”
In Orlando, Rekognition is being used to find “people of interest” using footage from “cameras all over the city.” In a video posted to YouTube earlier this month, Amazon’s Ranju Das claimed the system in Orlando could even locate the mayor as well as persons of interest. He also plugged the tool for home monitoring.
‘Affordable mass surveillance’
Details of the deal with Orlando Police Department indicated Amazon was following it’s normal business model: start cheap and wait for the customers to come. For 30,989 images processed, the department only had to pay $30.99, according to a documentobtained by the ACLU.
“This is a very affordable mass surveillance machine, and that’s partly why it’s a concern,” ACLU attorney Matt Cagle told Forbes. “This company that’s built itself as customer-centric has entered the surveillance market.”
He said Amazon’s marketing materials read like they were providing for an “authoritarian” surveillance state and that questions should also be asked of other major technology companies who ran facial recognition services. “Amazon customers are right to be surprised that … it’s invited in a new set of customers, governments, that want to use this for surveillance.” Cagle warned Rekognition could be used to track protesters, immigrants or entire neighbourhoods.
Some in the surveillance industry are intrigued by the possibility of Amazon’s entrance into the market. Zak Doffman, CEO at British facial recognition firm Digital Barriers, said he’d even like to partner with Bezos’ business. “Where all of the full resolution video can be streamed to the centre or the cloud, Amazon will be a real threat to others in the market,” Doffman told Forbes.
Not that he didn’t have concerns over the security of all those faces and associated data being stored in Amazon’s cloud. “Where all of that personal data is being processed in a central cloud, the use and storage of that data in light of the recent Facebook and Google issues will be key for Amazon to work through,” he added. “If there are ethical concerns, they will emanate from data storage and use.”
All manner of facial recognition products are giving civil rights folk cause for concern. Just last month, Forbes revealed one of the biggest surveillance providers in the world, Israel-based Verint, was running a large database of Facebook photos for facial recognition.
An Amazon spokesperson told Forbes the company would be looking at use cases and where it deemed there were abuses, it would remove clients from the Rekognition service.
“As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world (e.g. various agencies have used Rekognition to find abducted people, amusement parks use Rekognition to find lost children, the Royal Wedding that just occurred this past weekend used Rekognition to identify wedding attendees),” the spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
“And, the utility of AI services like this will only increase as more companies start using advanced technologies like Amazon Rekognition. Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology. Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes? Like any of our AWS services, we require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition.”