Rekognition can identify, track, and analyze people in real time and recognize up to 100 people in a single image. It can quickly scan information it collects against databases featuring tens of millions of faces, according to Amazon.
23 May 2018 | Julia Carrie Wong | The Guardian
In the aftermath of the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, over the killing of Michael Brown, police departments and policy makers around the country hit upon a supposed panacea to racist policing and police brutality: body-worn cameras.
Many hailed the move as a victory for accountability. But among the few dissenters was Malkia Cyril, executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a leader in the Black Lives Matter network, who warned early and often that the cameras could become tools of surveillance against people of color because “body-worn cameras don’t watch the police, they watch the community being policed, people like me”.
The scope and scale of that surveillance became clearer Tuesday, when the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California released a collection of public records detailing how Amazon has been marketing and selling facial recognition software, called Amazon Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies.
Amazon marketing materials promoted the idea of using Rekognition in conjunction with police body cameras in real time – exactly the outcome Cyril feared.
22 May 2018 | ACLU California
Amazon is marketing Rekognition for government surveillance. According to its marketing materials, it views deployment by law enforcement agencies as a “common use case” for this technology.
Among other features, the company’s materials describe “person tracking” as an “easy and accurate” way to investigate and monitor people. Amazon says Rekognition can be used to identify “people of interest” raising the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments — such as undocumented immigrants or Black activists — will be seen as fair game for Rekognition surveillance.
Amazon’s Rekognition raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns. Today, the ACLU and a coalition of civil rights organizations demanded that Amazon stop allowing governments to use Rekognition.
Amazon not only markets Rekognition as a law enforcement service, it is helping governments deploy it. Amazon lists the city of Orlando, Florida, and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon among its customers. Upon learning this, the ACLU Foundations of California coordinated with the ACLU of Oregon and the ACLU of Florida on public records requests to learn more.
The documents we obtained indicate that the Washington County Sheriff and the City of Orlando became Rekognition customers in 2017. Washington County has since built a database of at least 300,000 mugshot photos to use in coordination with Rekognition. It also built a mobile app for its deputies to quickly scan for a match against the county’s database by submitting images obtained from surveillance or other sources.
Amazon is providing company resources to help government agencies deploy Rekognition. 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.”
“That is a recipe for authoritarianism and disaster,” Cyril said. “Amazon shouldn’t be anywhere near it, and if we have anything to say about it, they will not be.”
The ACLU and about 40 other organizations also released a letter to the Amazon chief executive, Jeff Bezos, calling on the company to stop selling Rekognition and its “dangerous surveillance powers” to the government.
“Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color,” the groups wrote. “With Rekognition, Amazon delivers these dangerous surveillance powers directly to the government.”
In an emailed statement, Amazon said Rekognition had “many useful applications in the real world”, such as locating lost children at amusement parks, and noted that the company “requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use” its software products.
“Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology,” the statement read. “Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?”
The letter from civil liberties groups did not call for the government to outlaw Amazon’s technology, but for Amazon to refrain from selling it to the government.
Though Amazon is best known to consumers for its e-commerce platform, the company also runs a giant cloud computing business. In November 2016, it launched Amazon Rekognition, an easy-to-use facial recognition service available to customers of Amazon Web Services. While some of the uses Amazon promoted for the product were merely voyeuristic – such as automatically detecting celebrities at the royal wedding – many of the use cases seemed specifically tailored for law enforcement.
The ACLU documents show how Amazon worked with the city of Orlando, Florida, and the sheriff’s department in Washington county, Oregon, to implement the technology.
Amazon Rekognition Deep learning-based image and video analysis
Amazon Rekognition 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.
Amazon Rekognition is based on the same proven, highly scalable, deep learning technology developed by Amazon’s computer vision scientists to analyze billions of images and videos daily, and requires no machine learning expertise to use.
Amazon Rekognition is a simple and easy to use API that can quickly analyze any image or video file stored in Amazon S3. Amazon Rekognition is always learning from new data, and we are continually adding new labels and facial recognition features to the service.
Rekognition’s fast and accurate search capability allows you to identify a person in a photo or video using your private repository of face images.
You can analyze the attributes of faces in images and videos to determine things like happiness, age range, eyes open, glasses, facial hair, etc. In video, you can also measure how these things change over time, such as constructing a timeline of the emotions of an actor.
When using Rekognition to analyze video, you can track people through a video even when their faces are not visible, or as they go in and out of the scene. You can also identify their movements in the frame to tell things like whether someone was entering or exiting a building.
Unsafe content detection
Amazon Rekognition helps you identify potentially unsafe or inappropriate content across both image and video assets and provides you with detailed labels that allow you to accurately control what you want to allow based on your needs.
At a conference in Seoul, Ranju Das, who is listed as the director of Rekognition on his LinkedIn profile, boasted about the capabilities of the panopticon created in the partnership with Orlando.
“They have cameras all over the city,” he said. “We analyze the video in real time [and] search against the collection of faces they have.”
The Orlando police department told NPR that its use of the technology was a “pilot program” and that it was following applicable laws.
But while the capabilities of the technology were impressive, the potential downfallswere catastrophic, warned Cyril.
“Technology is a tool; placing a tool in the context of extreme racism and brutality is simply going to produce more extreme racism and brutality,” Cyril said of police use of cameras. “When you add facial recognition into that context, and you add the supercomputing powers of Amazon, what you do is supercharge already existing discrimination to a level that is unprecedented.
“You not only increase the speed at which discrimination can take place, but you increase the scale at which discrimination can take place.”
The documents show that at least some public employees raised concerns about the technology. “The ACLU might consider this the government getting in bed with big data,” one Washington county employee wrote in an email.
In a blogpost detailing their findings, Matt Cagle and Nicole A Ozer of the ACLU responded: “That employee’s prediction was correct.”
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