Commentary

Yes, Amazon Is Tracking People

When most people think of the tech giant Amazon, they think of an innovative, consumer-friendly company responsible for affordable deliveries. Recent news is shattering that image.

According to documents obtained by American Civil Liberties Union affiliates in three states, Amazon is providing police departments in Orlando, Fla., and Washington County, Ore., with powerful facial recognition technology.

The documents show that the company’s interests go beyond efficient shopping, and should serve as a reminder not only that police departments ought to be prohibited from using real-time facial recognition technology, but also that most lawmakers have been asleep at the wheel when it comes to the proliferation of surveillance technology

Amazon’s facial recognition service, Rekognition, is designed to identify and track people going about their daily business. This isn’t hyperbole - a Rekognition spokesperson explicitly mentioned real-time tracking and identification at an Amazon Web Services summit earlier this year. The same spokesperson went on to call Orlando a “smart city,” with cameras everywhere that allow authorities to track persons of interest in real time.

Orlando Police Department spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Bernal issued a statement stressing that the department’s use of Rekognition is limited and is in an early testing phase. Police with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon have built a database of at least 300,000 mugshot photos for use in conjunction with Rekognition via a mobile app. Last year, an “Information Systems Analyst” with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office emailed an unnamed Amazon employee, saying that while Rekognition’s tattoo identification feature can recognize tattoos, it would be better if it could specify what the tattoo shows (dragons, flowers, etc.).

In order to protect civil liberties without hampering innovation, lawmakers should require public input before surveillance tools are deployed and ensure that facial recognition databases are purged of data related to law-abiding people.

Other emails mentioned merging real-time facial recognition with body cameras, something Axon, one of the largest body camera manufacturers in America, is pursuing. Axon isn’t alone. According to a 2017 Department of Justice survey, nine of 38 body camera manufacturers either have facial recognition capability or have that capability built in for future use. The Orlando Police Department does not put any limits on biometric tools such as facial recognition being used on body camera footage. Fortunately, an official with the Washington County Sheriff’s Office pointed out in one of the released emails that using facial recognition in conjunction with body cameras is illegal in Oregon. However, the majority of major police departments across the country are not bound by such restrictions.

News that Amazon has been supplying powerful facial recognition technology is an indictment of local lawmakers. Across the country, police have been deploying powerful surveillance tools without informing the public. In one particularly egregious example, police in Baltimore conducted persistent aerial surveillance without informing the mayor, the city council, or public defenders.

It should not be possible for police to deploy powerful surveillance technology without first having a period of public comment during which members of the community can express concerns, and in which police must reveal the technology’s capabilities.

Fortunately there are some jurisdictions where these kinds of requirements are being pursued, and earlier this month Oakland, Calif., passed an ordinance requiring public oversight of police surveillance equipment. Similar requirements are now in place in Davis, Berkeley, and the County of Santa Clara, all in California. While this kind of oversight is welcome, we should remain mindful that it’s rare.

Without public oversight of surveillance technology, invasive, persistent, and warrantless surveillance will increasingly become the norm rather the exception. The body camera manufacturer Axon has tried to allay the civil liberty concerns associated with their products by convening an AI ethics board. But this board is toothless, with no powers to veto products. Amazon, responding to recent news about Rekognition, issued a statement that read, “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.”

True enough, and local lawmakers should be taking steps to limit such abuse. Such limits need not hamper innovation. Facial recognition is an exciting technology with applications beyond law enforcement. Autism treatment, ticket purchasing, retail checkouts, marketing, and healthcare are only some of the industries and applications facial recognition will surely affect in the coming years. These welcome developments need not come at the expense of our civil liberties.

In order to protect civil liberties without hampering innovation, lawmakers should require public input before surveillance tools are deployed and ensure that facial recognition databases are purged of data related to law-abiding people. After all, half of all American adults are already in a law enforcement facial recognition network, and the vast majority of these adults are not wanted for a serious crime.

Finally, lawmakers should ensure that real-time facial recognition capability is not merged with police cameras, whether they are dash cams, CCTV cameras, or body cameras. Facial recognition may well be a valuable investigatory tool, but outfitting police with real-time facial recognition capability will only increase the likelihood of needlessly contentious and violent confrontations between police officers and members of communities across the country.

Matthew Feeney is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.