Skip to main content

ACLU: Amazon's 'Rekognition' Tool Could Be Used Against Protesters, Immigrants

Amazon Rekognition in action. (Image credit: ACLU)

Update,6/04/18, 12:30am PT:

We've updated the article to correct a claim that the Amazon Go use facial recognition to identify its customers. A previous TechCrunch article said that the company's own "Go" stores didn't use facial recognition.

The stores seem to be using cameras primarily to track the movement of products that are for sale. Amazon confirmed to Tom's Hardware that its no-checkout stores don't use facial recognition, but didn't reveal more details about how the system works in time for this update.

Amazon also refuted ACLU's claims that its Rekognition technology would be abused by law enforcement.

Original, 5/23/18, 10:00am PT:

The ACLU said that Amazon has created a “powerful and dangerous new facial recognition system” called “Rekognition” and is actively helping governments deploy it.

Amazon Enters The Surveillance Business

Marketing materials and documents obtained by ACLU affiliates in three states revealed an Amazon product that can readily be used to violate civil liberties and rights, according to the non-profit organization.

Powered by artificial intelligence (AI), Rekognition can identify, track, and analyze people in real-time, and recognize up to 100 people in a single image. It can then scan information it collects against databases featuring tens of millions of faces. The database could be either provided by law enforcement, or Amazon may use its own, depending on how Rekognition has been configured by whoever's using it at the time.

Amazon recently started opening no-checkout stores, where shoppers have their faces scanned from the moment they enter the store. Those face profiles are then associated to people’s credit cards and Amazon accounts, so the company would know who to charge when shoppers exit the stores. This is supposed to make shopping more convenient, but as the ACLU's findings show, the underlying tech can serve other purposes.

According to the documents viewed by the ACLU, Amazon sees law enforcement agencies deploying its facial recognition technology as a “common use case.” The documents also say that the “person tracking” enabled by Rekognition is an “easy and accurate” way to monitor people.

Amazon said in the documents that its technology can identify “people of interest.” The ACLU said this could allow the government to track people it labels “suspicious,” such as black activists or undocumented immigrants. At a time when Americans seem to be joining more (and bigger) protests, Rekognition would allow law enforcement to monitor “all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports.”

Demand That Amazon Stops Selling Surveillance Technology To Governments

The ACLU and a group of other civil rights organizations demanded that Amazon stop selling its Rekognition technology to governments. Amazon lists the city of Orlando, Florida, and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon among the governmental agencies that use Rekognition.

The ACLU worries that eventually the police body cameras, which were originally meant to be used as a tool of government transparency, could be turned back on the citizens. The technology could the police officers to determine in real-time who has joined a protest, for instance. The police could also see in real-time who of the people they see during their work hours is an undocumented immigrant.

The ACLU believes that free citizens should be able to walk down the street without being constantly monitored and immediately identified by the government. That would be a system similar to the one that has already been implemented in China, and millions of Chinese citizens have already been negatively impacted by 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.