Originally published on Activist Post
Amazon is facing pressure from civil liberties groups for the corporation’s role in building the infrastructure which powers government surveillance.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, the Freedom of the Press Foundation and nearly 40 other organizations have joined together to demand that Amazon cease providing law enforcement access to surveillance technology. The organizations signed onto a letter to Amazon which condemns the company for developing new facial recognition tools that allow real-time surveillance using police body cameras and the ever growing interconnected network of cameras in most major American cities.
“Amazon has been heavily marketing this tool—called “Rekognition”—to law enforcement, and it’s already being used by agencies in Florida and Oregon,” the EFF wrote in a recent blog. “This system affords the government vast and dangerous surveillance powers, and it poses a threat to the privacy and freedom of communities across the country. That includes many of Amazon’s own customers, who represent more than 75 percent of U.S. online consumers.”
Documents obtained by the ACLU of Northern California recently revealed Rekognition, Amazon’s facial recognition program, is currently used by police in Orlando and Oregon’s Washington County. As with the Stingray cellphone surveillance tools, the tool requires law enforcement to sign nondisclosure agreements to avoid public disclosure. The EFF is calling on Amazon to “stand up for civil liberties” and “cut law enforcement off from using its face recognition technology.”
The joint letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos states that Amazon’s face recognition technology is “readily available to violate rights and target communities of color.” The letter warns that the facial recognition tool will disproportionately affect communities of color, “continuously track immigrants, and identify and arrest protesters and activists.” In addition, the letter warns that the technology will ultimately “chill free speech.”
The letter also notes that Amazon’s own promotional material states that Rekognition can identify people in real-time by “instantaneously searching databases containing tens of millions of faces.” Amazon offers a “person tracking” feature that it says “makes investigation and monitoring of individuals easy and accurate” for “surveillance applications.” Amazon says Rekognition can be used to identify “all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports.”
The letter also warns that local police could use Rekognition to identify political protesters recorded by officer body cameras. In addition, Rekognition can track people even if it can’t see their face, can identify and catalog a person’s gender, what they’re doing, what they’re wearing, and their emotional state. The program can also flag things it considers “unsafe” or “inappropriate.”
(presentation on Rekognition)
Resistance to Amazon’s new partnership with the government is not only coming from civil liberties groups. The Congressional Black Caucus also wrote a letter to Amazon last week, stating, “We are troubled by the profound negative unintended consequences this form of artificial intelligence could have for African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and protesters.”
Unfortunately, Amazon’s partnership with law enforcement is nothing new. Amazon famously partnered with the CIA by offering cloud storage services through Amazon Web Services (AWS) which allows agencies to store the extremely large video files generated by body and other surveillance cameras. For only $6 to $12 extra a month law enforcement can add Rekognition to their AWS subscription.
Amazon has specifically advertised that Rekognition can be used in conjunction with police officer “bodycams”. I actually warned about this in February 2016 in an article titled “Don’t Fall for the Police Body Camera Deception”. In that piece, I note that the ACLU made a passing reference to the danger of the then-new idea of outfitting officers with body cameras in an attempt to establish accountability and transparency. The ACLU discussed an article from The Washington Post which described how police in Fresno, California had a Real Time Crime Center which issued threat scores for citizens based on a number of factors. The ACLU wrote:
"But one other part of Fresno’s vision for the center caught my eye. According to the Post, the city hopes “to add 400 more streams from cameras worn on officers’ bodies."
The ACLU went on to describe the obvious downside of rushing to outfit police with body cameras:
"Picture the situation in a city like New York, where there are 40,000 sworn police officers circulating around the city, disproportionately deployed in low-income areas and communities of color. The centralized live-streaming of body cameras would instantly super-charge the surveillance powers of the authorities, especially in communities that are already heavily policed. Simply put, this is too much power to place in the hands of anyone. It raises the prospect of abuse, and will create significant chilling effects."
Amazon’s partnership with law enforcement is only one piece of the giant puzzle that is the relationship between private industry – surveillance technology in this case – and government. The truth of the matter is that companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon have an amazing amount of private information on private citizens, as well as a growing budget for artificial intelligence technology. This technology is being used to monitor and predict the behavior of people around the world and then sold to law enforcement agencies. This is the danger and downside of the rapid growth of technology. Can humanity find a way to use technology for thriving and growth? Or are the masses destined to be controlled and manipulated via technology that rests in the hands of the ultra rich and their partners in government?