New details have emerged about how Amazon markets its controversial facial recognition tech, Rekognition, to law enforcement.
Documents obtained by BuzzFeed News show that the internet giant provided the Orlando Police Department with ‘tens of thousands of dollars worth of technology’ for free.
It comes after Orlando decided to renew its Rekognition contract with Amazon in July, after it expired in June.
New details have emerged about how Amazon markets its facial recognition tech, Rekognition, to law enforcement. The city of Orlando renewed its contract with the firm in July
As part of the deal, Amazon has required Orlando to sign a nondisclosure agreement about the pilot, meaning that details about it wouldn’t be publicly available.
Amazon defended this and the decision to let Orlando use the technology for free.
‘Providing customers with an opportunity to test technology with free credits is a common practice in the industry and something we offer to many of our customers with various AWS services,’ an Amazon Web Services spokesperson told BuzzFeed.
‘Talking to organizations about products and new features under a non-disclosure agreement is also something we do frequently with many of our customers for the purposes of protecting intellectual property and competitive information.
‘We continue to support our customers in the responsible use of the technology which includes providing publicly available best practices and documentation as well as ongoing guidance from our machine learning experts, all of which is standard for customer engagement,’ the spokesperson added.
While Orlando hasn’t put in place a citywide facial recognition system, or used it to identify criminals, the move has raised concerns among privacy advocates who say there is little oversight or regulation of such trials.
What’s more, BuzzFeed discovered that the law enforcement in Orlando has received little to no training on the Rekognition systems. There have also been errors within the system.
In one email, a city official contacted Amazon with complaints about the system working properly.
‘The streams keep stopping….seems like this happens daily,’ an Olrando official wrote.
‘I started 4 or 5 streams the other day and as you said, now only 1 is still up. I thought you were working on a script to automatically restart them if there were issues?’
Orlando’s facial recognition system is currently only looking for faces of police officers who volunteer to participate, BuzzFeed said.
Photos of ‘persons of interest,’ or officer volunteers, are uploaded into the system, then Rekognition maps their characteristics are added to an index.
Faces are watched by eight live video streams from scattered across the city and compared against the index.
If a match is found between a person’s face and a person of interest, the system should automatically notify police officers.
Facial recognition is used by many technology companies, but activists say Amazon’s system could lead to dangerous surveillance powers for law enforcement
HOW DOES AMAZON’S CONTROVERSIAL RECKOGNITION TECHNOLOGY WORK?
Amazon Rekognition gives software applications the power to detect objects, scenes and faces within images.
It was built with computer vision, which lets AI programs analyse still and video images.
AI systems rely on artificial neural networks, which try to simulate the way the brain works in order to learn.
They can be trained to recognise patterns in information – including speech, text data, or visual images.
Rekognition uses deep learning neural network models to analyse billions of images daily.
Updates since it was created even allow the technology to guess a person’s age.
In November 2017, its creators announced that Rekognition can now detect and recognise text in images, perform real-time face recognition across tens of millions of faces and detect up to 100 faces in challenging crowded photos.
It comes as Amazon has defended its Rekognition tech, alongside growing concerns from groups like the American Civil Liberties Union.
The ACLU claims the software guide for the AI ‘reads like a user manual for authoritarian surveillance’.
But Amazon said ‘quality of life would be much worse’ if technologies such as this were blocked because of fears they may be misused.
It has pointed out that its tool has helped find lost children in the past, and claims it has great potential for fighting crime in future.
Amazon Rekognition has been used for a number of positive purposes already, the company claims.
This includes using the program to find children lost in amusement parks and identifying people who have been abducted.
However, Amazon is drawing the ire of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other privacy advocates over the tool.
First released in 2016, Amazon has since been selling it on the cheap to several police departments around the US, listing the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon and the city of Orlando, Florida among its customers.
Amazon offers the technology to law enforcement for just $6 (£4.50) to $12 (£9) a month. So far, it counts the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon and the city of Orlando as customers
The ACLU and other organizations are now calling on Amazon to stop marketing the product to law enforcement, saying they could use the technology to ‘easily build a system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone’.
Police appear to be using Rekognition to check photographs of unidentified suspects against a database of mug shots from the county jail.
But privacy advocates have been concerned about expanding the use of facial recognition to body cameras worn by officers or safety and traffic cameras that monitor public areas, allowing police to identify and track people in real time.
Amazon offers the technology to law enforcement for just $6 (£4.50) to $12 (£9) a month.
Deputies in Oregon had been using Rekognition about 20 times per day – for example, to identify burglary suspects in store surveillance footage.
Last month, the agency adopted policies governing its use, noting that officers in the field can use real-time face recognition to identify suspects who are unwilling or unable to provide their own ID, or if someone’s life is in danger.
‘We are not mass-collecting. We are not putting a camera out on a street corner,’ said Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
‘We want our local community to be aware of what we’re doing, how we’re using it to solve crimes – what it is and, just as importantly, what it is not.’
WHAT HAS AMAZON SAID ABOUT ITS RECKOGNITION AI FACIAL RECOGNITION TOOL?
Amazon has defended giving its Big Brother-style facial recognition tool to police following an outcry from civil rights groups.
Amazon’s facial recognition tool, dubbed ‘Rekognition’, is currently being used by law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Florida.
In an emailed statement, however, the firm said it has ‘ many useful applications in the real world’, such as locating lost children at amusement parks
It also noted that the company ‘requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use’ its software products.
Speaking to the BBC, a spokesman said: ‘Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.
‘Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?’
It cost the sheriff’s office just $400 (£300) to load 305,000 booking photos into the system and $6 (£4.50) per month in fees to continue the service, according to an email obtained by the ACLU under a public records request.
Last year, the Orlando, Florida, Police Department announced it would begin a pilot program relying on Amazon’s technology to ‘use existing City resources to provide real-time detection and notification of persons-of-interest, further increasing public safety.’
Orlando has a network of public safety cameras, and in a presentation posted to YouTube this month , Ranju Das, who leads Amazon Rekognition, said Amazon would receive feeds from the cameras, search them against photos of people being sought by law enforcement and notify police of any hits.
‘It’s about recognizing people, it’s about tracking people, and then it’s about doing this in real time, so that the law enforcement officers … can be then alerted in real time to events that are happening,’ he said.
The Orlando Police Department declined to make anyone available for an interview about the program, but said in an email to The Associated Press that the department ‘is not using the technology in an investigative capacity or in any public spaces at this time.’
While the Seattle Police Department bars officers from using real-time facial recognition in body camera video, privacy activists are concerned that a proliferation of the technology could turn the cameras into tools of mass surveillance
HOW DOES FACIAL RECOGNITION TECHNOLOGY WORK?
Facial recognition software works by matching real time images to a previous photograph of a person.
Each face has approximately 80 unique nodal points across the eyes, nose, cheeky and mouth which distinguish one person from another.
A digital video camera measures the distance between various points on the human face, such as the width of the nose, depth of the eye sockets, distance between the eyes and shape of the jawline.
A smart surveillance system (pictured) that can scan 2 billion faces within seconds has been revealed in China. The system connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to pick out targets
This produces a unique numerical code that can then be linked with a matching code gleaned from a previous photograph.
A facial recognition system used by officials in China connects to millions of CCTV cameras and uses artificial intelligence to pick out targets.
Experts believe that facial recognition technology will soon overtake fingerprint technology as the most effective way to identify people.
‘The purpose of a pilot program such as this, is to address any concerns that arise as the new technology is tested,’ the statement said.
‘Any use of the system will be in accordance with current and applicable law. We are always looking for new solutions to further our ability to keep the residents and visitors of Orlando safe.’
Amazon’s Rekognition program with police also drew sharp criticism from users on Twitter, who said it could have nefarious consequences.
Clare Garvie, an associate at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center, said part of the problem with real-time face recognition is its potential impact on free-speech rights.
While police might be able to videotape public demonstrations, face recognition is not merely an extension of photography but a biometric measurement – more akin to police walking through a demonstration and demanding identification from everyone there.
Amazon’s technology isn’t that different from what face recognition companies are already selling to law enforcement agencies. But its vast reach and its interest in recruiting more police departments to take part raise concerns, she said.
‘This raises very real questions about the ability to remain anonymous in public spaces,’ Garvie said.