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Florida police are using Amazon’s creepy real-time facial-recognition tech

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Between its cloud services and retail business, Amazon has plenty of angles when it comes to raking in the cash. But CEO Jeff Bezos’ ecommerce giant has one more unusual money maker up its sleeve: Selling facial recognition technology to the police.

According to documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, Amazon recently sold access to its real-time “Rekognition” facial recognition tech to the Orlando, Florida police department, which could potentially use it as part of their future crime-solving goals.

“City of Orlando is a launch partner of ours,” Rekognition software director Ranju Das said during a developer conference in Seoul, South Korea. “They have cameras all over the city. The authorized cameras are then streaming the data … we are a subscriber to the stream, we analyze the video in real time, [and] search against the collection of faces they have.”

The Orlando Police Department says that the facial recognition tech is being used only as a “pilot problem” that is being carried out “in accordance with current and applicable law.” It also says that the technology is not currently being utilized “in an investigative capacity or in any public spaces at this time.”

Image & Video Rekognition based on AWS - Ranju Das, GM of Amazon Rekognition, AWS

Amazon defended itself against critics by noting that: “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?”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone feels quite so warm and fuzzy about Amazon’s plans as, well, Amazon, though. In an open letter sent to Bezos, the ACLU suggested that the technology is, “primed for abuse in the hands of governments.” In particular, the letter noted how it “poses a grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants, and to the trust and respect Amazon has worked to build.”

Orlando’s isn’t the only U.S. law enforcement agency using Rekognition. In Oregon, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office is using Rekognition with a database of more than 300,000 mugshots and a mobile app deputies can use to scan for matches.

How to Get the Most Out of Amazon Rekognition Video - AWS Online Tech Talks

According to the ACLU, a Washington County employee raised concerns about the Sheriff’s office using Amazon Rekognition and wrote in an email that the “ACLU might consider this the government getting in bed with big data.”  That employee was right.

The NorCal ACLU also reported it obtained records that indicate that law enforcement agencies in California and Arizona have asked Washington County officials about Amazon Rekognition.

The U.S. isn’t the only country to be using facial recognition in this way, though. In China, the technology is being widely used — most recently to reportedly pick a suspect out of a packed 50,000 person crowd at a concert.

Updated May 23 with information about Oregon law enforcement using Amazon Rekognition.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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