By Aaron Kesel
An astounding 20 groups of Amazon shareholders sent its CEO, Jeff Bezos, a letter urging him to stop selling the company’s face recognition software to law enforcement, CNN reported.
The software, called Rekognition, came under greater scrutiny last month when the ACLU published revealing internal documents related to its use by police. Numerous civil rights organizations co-signed a letter demanding Amazon stop assisting government surveillance, and several members of Congress have expressed concerns about the partnerships.
“We are concerned the technology would be used to unfairly and disproportionately target and surveil people of color, immigrants, and civil society organizations,” the shareholders, which reportedly include Social Equity Group and Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment, wrote. “We are concerned sales may be expanded to foreign governments, including authoritarian regimes.”
Amazon’s Rekognition software can analyze images from all types of sources—images or videos from any police surveillance tool—including CCTV, body cameras, and drones all matched against databases.
This isn’t the first time that Amazon was caught working with law enforcement. Amazon’s fifth transparency report revealed earlier this year that the company provided more customer data to U.S. law enforcement in the first half of last year than in its history with a shocking 1,936 different requests between January and June 2017, ZDNet reported.
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Of those 1,936 requests, Amazon complied and replied to 1,200 subpoena requests, 189 search warrants and 76 other court orders – for a whopping 1,465 requests they responded to. That’s 42 percent of all subpoenas, 44 percent of search warrants and 52 percent of other court orders.
That’s an incredible rise from the year prior where Amazon received:
- 1,618 subpoenas, which the company fully complied with 679 cases.
- 229 search warrants, which the company fully complied with 100 cases.
- 89 other court orders, which the company fully complied with 46 cases.
Amazon didn’t state why there was a spike in U.S. government requests during the first half of the year, but for a company that openly has a partnership with the CIA for $600 million for cloud servers, this information should be troubling. The oddest part of this data is the fact that Amazon stated they received no content removal orders, which begs the question what merit were the cases based on if not illegal content?
Amazon has publicly promoted how police have used its face recognition software to identify people of interest to law enforcement. On Amazon’s website, a systems analyst with Oregon’s Washington County explained how Rekognition was fed a database of 300,000 arrest photos to match against faces seen in surveillance images. It’s significant to note that when a person is arrested typically they are put into a database, whether they are convicted of a crime or not.
In May, the ACLU released troubling internal documents, including an email from a Washington County official telling Amazon they were using Rekognition to identify “unconscious or deceased individuals” as well as “possible witnesses.”
The privacy concerns are obvious and growing as the U.S. deploys face recognition in airports and at borders, and even schools are installing cameras which soon could be equipped with facial recognition. Increasingly our rights are decreasing with the help of big corporations like Amazon. Recently, Google saw its employees stop a military contract in a petition after the company was revealed to be involved with helping Project Maven (an artificial intelligence drone initiative.) It’s up to everyone to take a stand wherever and whenever they see injustice taking hold.