Photo: AP

Amazon is all but gifting the use of its powerful facial recognition program to help power law enforcement agencies’ surveillance programs across the country, according to documents obtained by civil rights groups and reported by the Washington Post on Tuesday.

The tech giant has essentially been giving away its facial recognition technology—called Rekognition—along with consulting services to law enforcement offices in Oregon and Orlando, according to documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act Request filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. Amazon also signed a secrecy arrangement with “a prominent law enforcement customer,” according to the ACLU.

One client, the sheriff’s office of Washington County, told the Post they pay Amazon between $6 and $12 a month for the service, which they’ve used to assemble a database of 300,000 mugshots that Rekognition can scan to potentially identify suspects in real time.

In a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Tuesday, the ACLU, joined by 40 other civil rights organizations, expressed dismay at the partnership between Amazon and law enforcement officials, saying it “poses a grave threat” to customers’ privacy—particularly for people of color.

The groups also called on the company to stop selling the program to cops. According to the letter (emphasis added):

Amazon states that Rekognition can identify people in real-time by instantaneously searching databases containing tens of millions of faces. Amazon offers a “person tracking” feature that it says “makes investigation and monitoring of individuals easy and accurate” for “surveillance applications.” Amazon says Rekognition can be used to identify “all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports”—at a time when Americans are joining public protests at unprecedented levels.

Amazon also encourages the use of Rekognition to monitor “people of interest,” raising the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments—such as undocumented immigrants or Black activists—will be targeted for Rekognition surveillance. Amazon has even advertised Rekognition for use with officer body cameras, which would fully transform those devices into mobile surveillance cameras aimed at the public.

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Amazon defended its bargain-priced partnerships with police agencies, with a spokeswoman telling the Washington Post that its technology has practical applications for public safety, like finding people who’ve been abducted, as well as fun applications, like identifying guests at the royal wedding! (Splinter has also reached out to Amazon for comment and will update this post if we hear back.)

From the Washington Post (emphasis added):

Amazon spokeswoman Nina Lindsey did not directly address the concerns of civil rights groups. “Amazon requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use AWS services,” she said, referring to Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud software division that houses the facial recognition program. “When we find that AWS services are being abused by a customer, we suspend that customer’s right to use our services.”

She said that the technology has many useful purposes, and that customers have used it to find abducted people and amusement parks have used the program to find lost children. During the royal wedding this past weekend, clients used Rekognition to identify wedding attendees, she said.

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I, for one, see no reason to be concerned about any of this, and look forward to the flourishing of our Bezos-owned surveillance state. After all, law enforcement offices have a sterling track record of staying within their legal boundaries when interacting with communities of color.

Update, May 23, 8:30 am: An Amazon spokesperson sent Splinter this statement:

The utility of AI services like this will only increase as more companies start using advanced technologies like Amazon Rekognition. 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? Like any of our AWS services, we require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition.

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No one is calling to “outlaw new technology,” as far as I’ve seen. What civil rights groups and others are concerned about is Amazon handing over this powerful technology to law enforcement agencies, and having little transparency on how those agencies are using it.