Amazon aiding in government surveillance, ACLU says

Last Updated May 22, 2018 5:25 PM EDT

Amazon is marketing facial-recognition technology to government agencies, raising privacy concerns and threatening communities already unjustly targeted, the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday in calling on the retailer to get out of the surveillance business.

That business already includes work with the city of Orlando, Florida, and the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon, according to the ACLU's Northern California chapter. The group released emails between the retailer and local law enforcement discussing the use of the facial-recognition service, dubbed "Rekognition."

Amazon released Rekognition in late 2016, and the sheriff's office in Washington County, near Portland, became a customer. A year later, deputies were using it about 20 times a day to, for example, identify burglary suspects in store surveillance footage, the ACLU said. In April, the office adopted policies governing its use, stipulating that officers could use real-time face recognition to ID suspects unwilling or unable to offer their own identify, or if someone's life is in danger.

"As advertised, Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color," an ACLU-led coalition said in a letter on Tuesday to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. "Amazon must 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."

Until recently, police use of facial-recognition software mostly involved comparing photos from crime scenes with mug shots. 

Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the Washington county sheriff's office, defended its use of the technology.

"We are not mass-collecting. We are not putting a camera out on a street corner," he told the Associated Press."We want our local community to be aware of what we're doing, how we're using it to solve crimes, what it is and, just as importantly, what it is not."

The police department in Orlando, Florida, is also trying out Rekognition to track people in real time, identifying them as they walk down the street, the ACLU said. 

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Speaking at a recent developer conference in South Korea and calling Orlando a "launch partner," Ranju Das, director of Rekognition at Amazon, recently described how the city uses the service. "They have cameras all over the city. The authorized cameras are then streaming the data," he said. "We analyze the video in real time, [and] search against the collection of faces they have.""

The Orlando Police Department said in an email to the AP that the department "is not using the technology in an investigative capacity or in any public spaces at this time."

"The purpose of a pilot program such as this is to address any concerns that arise as the new technology is tested," the statement said. "Any use of the system will be in accordance with current and applicable law. We are always looking for new solutions to further our ability to keep the residents and visitors of Orlando safe."

Amazon said in an emailed statement that it requires customers comply with the law, and if it learns that its services are being "abused by a customer," it suspends that customer's use of its technology.

The company also stressed its technology is used for humane purposes, such as finding abducted children or even a child lost at an amusement park. 

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report