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Amazon Refutes ACLU’s Claims On ‘Rekognition’ Technology

Two weeks ago, the ACLU claimed to have obtained evidence that Amazon has “officially entered the surveillance business” with the “Rekognition” facial recognition service that the company has been encouraging law enforcement to use. Amazon has now argued that its technology is actually being used for good, and that it hasn’t seen evidence of law enforcement abusing the Rekognition software.

Amazon Rekognition To “Benefit Society”

Dr. Matt Wood, general manager of artificial intelligence at AWS, recently wrote a blog post talking about Amazon’s facial recognition service and arguing that Rekognition could actually be used to “benefit society.” He then noted that the technology could aid in preventing human trafficking, inhibiting child exploitation, reuniting missing children with their families, and building educational apps for children.

Wood also argued that it could enhance security in organizations through multi-factor authentication or prevent package theft. He then added that image and video analysis could be a “driver for good” when used in the public sector and by law enforcement, too.

Wood claimed that there has been no reported abuse of Amazon Rekognition, and that the company has and Acceptable Use Policy (“AUP”) that prohibits the use of its services for “[a]ny activities that are illegal, that violate the rights of others, or that may be harmful to others.” Wood added that this includes violating Constitutional rights such as the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendments. If customers violate the AUP, Amazon promises to restrict them from using the services.

Wood’s final point was that its technology is neutral and that as any technology it can be used for both bad and good, however he believes that the benefits of its Rekognition technology far outweigh the cons in this case.

ACLU Responds

When discussing Amazon’s counterpoints with ACLU, the nonprofit doubled-down on its stance that Amazon is encouraging law enforcement to use Rekognition in ways that will easily lead to abuses.

An ACLU spokesperson told Tom’s Hardware:

"Amazon is handing governments a surveillance system primed for authoritarian abuse. Rekognition enables the government to search against tens of millions of faces in real time – and can be used to track protesters, target immigrants, and spy on entire neighborhoods.

We know that facial recognition misidentifies African Americans and women and relies on databases and algorithms built on a history of discriminatory policing. Face recognition doesn’t make communities safer, it just powers even greater discriminatory surveillance and policing."

To make its cases, ACLU revealed documents it obtained that show that Amazon has been working with law enforcement to integrate the Rekognition software in city surveillance cameras and in police body cameras. It also pointed out to Amazon marketing material that was promising such integration with police body cameras. ACLU said this marketing material was removed from Amazon’s site, after the nonprofit started questioning Amazon about it.

Currently, Amazon’s AWS site on which Rekognition service is promoted still mentions the software’s “person tracking” capability, which it describes as follows:

“With Rekognition Video, you can track each person within a shot and through the video across shots. Rekognition Video detects persons even when the camera is in motion and, for each person, returns a bounding box and the face, along with face attributes and timestamps. For retail applications, this allows to generate customer insights, such as how customers move across aisles in a shopping mall or how long they are waiting in checkout lines.”

It should be noted that so far ACLU has only warned that the technology could be abused because of the type of capabilities it enables. These capabilities include the police being able to identify who the protesters are or whether or not someone is an immigrant, just as well as it could identify dangerous criminals in certain public locations.

What the police does with the knowledge it gains from the Amazon facial recognition system will determine if the technology is abused or not. If the police abuses it, then we can only hope that Amazon commits to its promise of restricting access to it for the departments that abuse it.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.