Amazon Facial Recognition Tech has Privacy Advocates Worried
Amazon revolutionized the way people shop online and built a multi-billion dollar empire out of providing fast, convenient service. And like most massively successful companies, Amazon has branched out into other sectors. They offer a streaming video platform, cloud computing solutions, a digital personal assistant, and dozens of other services. But one area of innovation that has watchdog groups concerned is Amazon facial recognition technology.
Amazon introduced their facial recognition technology in late 2016, as a part of their Web Services division. Known as Amazon Rekognition, the software is capable of identifying faces and other objects in photos and videos. Unsurprisingly, the technology quickly caught the attention of law enforcement officials, such as the Orlando police department, who were eager to take the tech for a test run.
Facial recognition is nothing new, with variations of the concept appearing in everything from the latest iPhone to a decade-old digital camera. But Amazon’s resources, coupled with their aggressive push to sell the software to law enforcement, have many groups concerned about a mass surveillance risk.
In late May, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a letter they had written to Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon. In the letter, the ACLU laid out their concerns, and implored the company to rethink its stance on providing Amazon facial recognition technology to government agencies.
“Rather than restrict government use of Rekognition, Amazon is helping governments deploy it on both coasts, according to documents obtained by ACLU affiliates in three states. It has provided product support and offered free consulting services to government customers. Amazon has solicited feedback on new product features for law enforcement. Amazon even signed a secrecy agreement with a prominent law enforcement customer. Despite all of this, Amazon imposes no meaningful restrictions on how governments can use Rekognition.
Amazon Rekognition is primed for abuse in the hands of governments. This product poses a grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants, and to the trust and respect Amazon has worked to build. 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.”
Along with the letter, the ACLU released dozens of internal emails and documents the group had attained through open record requests, detailing Amazon’s correspondence with law enforcement officials across the country.
The ACLU’s concerns that this technology could be used to incorrectly target immigrants and people of color may be well-founded. A recent study performed by researchers at the M.I.T. media lab concluded that facial recognition technology misidentified people with darker skin tones up to 35% of the time. The ACLU also expressed concern that Amazon facial recognition tech could be used to identify legal and peaceful protestors, raising fears of political retribution against citizens for exercising their constitutional rights.
What’s more, the potential for this technology to be intercepted and abused by unauthorized personnel is another cause for concern. When security breaches can compromise the personal data of over 100 million customers, hijacking this software for nefarious purposes is a disaster waiting to happen.
Video from an Amazon event in Seoul, South Korea, featured a company official touting the technology, declaring that the Orlando police department could even use Rekognition to track the mayor’s movements through cameras placed around the city. If Amazon is being honest about what Rekognition is capable of, it could easily become a tool of mass-surveillance in anyone’s hands.
There is no easy solution to the dilemma of facial recognition technology. Like any tool, it depends entirely on the person using it. Still, this quote from Benjamin Franklin remains relevant:
“Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither.”