Congress and civil rights groups demand answers from Jeff Bezos no later than June 20th regarding Amazon’s new facial recognition software, Rekognition, which allows consumers to search millions of images in a matter of seconds. With rates lower than the cost of a value meal at your local fast food joint, this service is fast, affordable, and available to anyone signed up with Amazon Web Services.
The multi billion dollar company’s facial recognition software, named Rekogniton, works by using Amazon’s cloud computing network AWS (Amazon Web Services). The software compares images provided by the customer to an already existing database of images also provided by the same customer. In addition to identifying humans, Rekognition can be used to search for inanimate objects like cars, text, and furniture.
Congress has raised concerns about Amazon Rekognition and some have written a letter to Jeff Bezos demanding to know how the software is being used by law enforcement agencies. In the letter dated May 25, 2018, Bezos is asked to provide information concerning bias and error rates and wants to make sure Rekognition is not being used to “facilitate systems that disproportionately impact people based on protected characteristics in potential violation of federal civil laws.” The letter asks Bezos to respond no later than June 20th, 2018.
Read the letter in its entirety:
The ever growing market for facial recognition software and other image-scanning technology emboldens many privacy concerns. The possibility of having your photo taken without your knowledge or consent by cameras at traffic stops, individuals taking photos with their smartphone in a public venue, security cameras at different businesses and the like, leaves individuals vulnerable-especially when these images are loaded into a database that can scan and recognize you without your knowledge.
According to a blog from 2017 on Amazon’s website, they claim the software can “accurately capture demographics and analyze sentiments for all faces in group photos, crowded events, and public places such as airports and department stores.”
The ACLU obtained documents through the Freedom of Information Act that state Rekognition can identify up to 100 people in a crowd in databases of tens of millions of photos. In a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos sent May 22, 34 groups said people should be “free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom.”
Full document: https://www.aclunc.org/docs/20180522_ARD.pdf#page=8
These civil rights groups are most concerned with Rekognition’s use amongst law enforcement agencies. Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Director for the ACLU in Northern California stated, “Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm can’t be undone. We’re talking about a technology that will supercharge surveillance in our communities.”
The Jeff Bezos owned behemoth of a business has all but given away these new facial recognition tools to law enforcement agencies including the Orlando Police Department in Florida and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, outside of Portland Oregon.
Orlando police chief, John Mina initially claimed the software was only being used at their headquarters, but later admitted at a news conference that three of the city’s downtown IRIS cameras were equipped with the software, and insisted that Rekognition being ran on these public cameras was still only able to track the seven officers that volunteered to test the system.
Matt Cagle, ACLU attorney said in a statement: “After misleading the people of Orlando, the Orlando Police Department has finally confirmed that it is indeed using Amazon’s face surveillance technology on public cameras. Now, it’s up to Amazon. Will it stop selling dangerous technology to the government?”
Amazon is not the only business selling facial recognition software, with both Google and Facebook having their own facial recognition services. Revealed by Forbes in April, one of the largest surveillance providers in the world, Israel-based Verint runs a large database of Facebook photos for facial recognition.
How much is this service? Between $6 and $12 a month. Yes, you read that right. $6 to $12 a month-which has always been a part of Amazon’s normal business model: start dirt cheap and the customers will come flooding in. Basically, you only pay for the number of images or minutes of video that you analyze–there are no upfront commitments or minimum fees applicable.
According to the document obtained by the ACLU, the Orlando Police Department only paid $30.99 for processing of 30,989 images. If you sign up to be part of the AWS Free Tier, you’re able to analyze 1,000 minutes of video for free each month for the first year.
Businesses and police agencies aren’t the only ones who have access to Amazon Rekognition, the average consumer can set up an account and use the software for just pennies on the dollar. Under the FAQs page on Amazon’s AWS website it gives a detailed description of how to sign up and get started using the software right away.
One last important note that should raise major concerns, as stated on Amazon’s AWS FAQ page: as long as you’re compliant with Amazon’s Rekognition Service Terms and have provided them with required verifiable parental consent under COPPA (Children’s Privacy Protection Act), you may use Amazon Rekognition in connection with websites, programs, or other applications that are directed or targeted, in whole or in part, to children age 13. Not only are adults vulnerable to the software, but images of children under 13 can also be scanned into the database.
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