Commentary

Amazon Under Fire For Pushing Facial Recognition Software To Cops

It was not a good day for a couple of moguls of the Post-industrial Age who have become so much more than they originally set out to be, raising questions about what their creations know about all of us and what they can do with that information.

Even as Mark Zuckerberg was blasted for evasive answers to questions about privacy and targeted advertising in his appearance before members of the European Parliament yesterday, Amazon was slammed by 34 civil rights groups led by the American Civil Liberties Union for marketing facial recognition software to law enforcement groups.

“The technology, called Rekognition, uses artificial intelligence to identify the objects, people, scenes, and more from images or videos. An Amazon executive touted public safety as a ‘common use case’ for the technology in one presentation. For example, it can be used by law enforcement to recognize and track suspects or ‘persons of interest’ in real time. According to Amazon's website, later versions of the tool can identify up to 100 of the largest faces in an image, meaning it can pull out faces from a crowd,” report Sara Ashley O'Brien and Kaya Yurieff for CNN Tech.

“Amazon has branded itself as customer-centric, opposed secret government surveillance, and has a CEO who publicly supported First Amendment freedoms and spoke out against the discriminatory Muslim Ban. Yet, Amazon is powering dangerous surveillance that poses a grave threat to customers and communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate,” according to an online petition that this morning was still a few thousand signatures short of the 25,000 the ACLU is seeking.

“With the letter, the ACLU released a collection of internal emails and other documents from law enforcement agencies in Washington County [Oregon] and Orlando [Florida] that it obtained through open records requests. The correspondence between Amazon and law enforcement officials provides an unusual peek into the company’s ambitions with facial recognition tools, and how it has interacted with some of the officials using its products,” writes Nick Wingfield for the New York Times.

“Many of the companies supplying the technology are security contractors little known to the public, but Amazon is one of the first major tech companies to actively market technology for conducting facial recognition to law enforcement,” Winfield continues.

“Emails and other documents show that Washington County has a database of more than 300,000 mugshots that is indexed by Rekognition. The county obtained a mobile app that allows deputies to query the database by submitting images,” Dan Goodin writes for Ars Technica.

“Amazon, meanwhile, is offering free consulting services to build a proof-of-concept implementation of Rekognition for Orlando police. The city’s police chief has praised the arrangement as a ‘first of its kind public-private partnership.’ The ACLU cited this presentation in which an Amazon executive said Orlando officials ‘have cameras all over the city’ that submit images that Rekognition analyzes in real time to track ‘persons of interest,’” Goodin continues.

In a statement, Amazon responded: “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology,” the BBC’s Dave Lee reports. “Imagine if customers couldn't buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?”

The potential for the technology has moved beyond the theoretical.

On Sunday, “facial recognition cameras at a stadium led to the arrest of a fugitive at a Jacky Cheung concert in China, making it the third time in two months that the technology was used to catch a wanted person at one of the pop star's concerts,” Hamza Shaban writes for the Washington Post. “A man identified by the surname Yu was flagged among a crowd of 20,000 concertgoers after passing through security at the Jiaxing Sports Centre Stadium in Zhejiang.”

According to a report in the South China Morning Post, “Yu has been under investigation since 2015 for allegations of stealing more than $17,000 worth of potatoes,” Shaban continues. “After entering the stadium, police were alerted to his presence.”  

Cheung, a megastar who heretofore was known as the “God of Songs” and one of the “Four Heavenly Kings” in Hong Kong, has been re-dubbed “The Nemesis of Fugitives” by state media, Chun Han Wong reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, Amazon was also catching grief yesterday for banning  some shoppers “for infractions such as returning too many items, sometimes without telling them what they did wrong.”

Former Amazon managers tell the Wall Street Journal’s Khadeeja Safdar and Laura Stevens the company may also terminate an account for “sending back the wrong items or violating other rules, such as receiving compensation for writing reviews. Cases are typically evaluated by a human after algorithms surface the account as suspicious….”

Chris McCabe, a former policy enforcement investigator at Amazon and now a consultant at EcommerceChris LLC, says “it tends to happen when ‘you’re creating a lot of headaches for Amazon.’”

They might consider other remedies for their pains.

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