Amazon's AI is powering scary police facial-recognition systems

Amazon has quietly been pushing its Rekognition AI system to police departments, using the deep learning technology to power real-time facial recognition. The company has already deployed Rekognition-powered services in a number of US states, it's reported, automating the identification of "people of interest" from multiple cameras spread across cities.

Rekognition was launched back in 2016, as a way for companies to tap into machine learning systems for photo and video analysis. Part of its AWS platform, the artificial intelligence can dig through content in bulk, not only recognizing individuals but also identifying the emotions they're showing, among other things. One possible application, Amazon suggested at the time, was that companies could use facial recognition to automatically check in employees entering a building, comparing ID badges to the people wearing them.

However, according to the ACLU, Rekognition's talents are also being pitched in ways that prompt privacy concerns. Amazon has been marketing the technology as a law enforcement service, the civil rights organization says, having obtained documents detailing ways the AI has been deployed in several US counties. The Washington County Sheriff, for instance, and the City of Orlando have both been running Rekognition-powered systems since 2017, it's said.

In Washington County, Rekognition is the heart of a mugshot ID database. Law enforcement there has apparently fed more than 300,000 mugshot photos into a database, and Rekognition can sift through that to compare images of people obtained from police stops or surveillance footage. An earlier possibility, which Amazon has since removed, was using bodycam footage to tap into the facial identification system too.

In Orlando, meanwhile, there's a face recognition system operating in real-time already. Users with access to the service can hunt down "people of interest," it's said, in footage sourced from "cameras all over the city."

"People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government," the ACLU argues. "By automating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom, posing a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate. Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely difficult to undo."

That spread already looks like it could be underway. According to the obtained records, law enforcement agencies in Arizona and California have discussed Rekognition's abilities with representatives from Washington County, for example. The ACLU is calling on a total ban by Amazon on supplying the technology to governments.

Of course, Amazon itself is using systems like this for its own means. The recently-opened Amazon Go store in Seattle allows shoppers to fill their basket and leave without making any sort of payment: the transaction is all cleared based on Amazon identifying the user by face, and monitoring what they take. Previous reports suggest Amazon could open six new stores this year.