Privacy SOS

Documents shed light on how Amazon is shaping public discourse about Rekognition

Midday yesterday, activists affiliated with immigrants rights groups NWDC Resistance and Mijente donned Jeff Bezos masks outside Amazon’s Seattle Spheres building to protest the tech giant’s collaboration with ICE. The activists demanded Amazon stop marketing and selling its face surveillance technology, Rekognition, to ICE and other law enforcement agencies. The protest comes on the heels of new revelations about Amazon’s work with law enforcement around face surveillance nationwide.

Last month, Buzzfeed published documents it obtained from the Orlando Police Department, shedding more light on the relationship between law enforcement and Amazon and the workings of the Rekognition system. The documents confirm that Amazon is providing face surveillance technology to police despite the absence of oversight or accountability measures, and reveal that the company has been coordinating its response to civil liberties complaints with the Orlando Police.

Last June, after civil liberties groups including the ACLU of Florida raised concerns, the Orlando PD announced that its initial pilot contract with Amazon to use Rekognition had expired. But one month later, in July, the City made an about face and announced that the pilot would be extended. The official statement read in part: “the City of Orlando will continue to test Amazon Rekognition facial recognition software to determine if this technology could reliably identify specific individuals as they come within view of specific cameras.” The documents obtained by Buzzfeed provide a look behind the curtain at communications between the company and the police department, as Orlando’s test pilot was thrust into the national spotlight.  

The records give us insight into what appears to be Amazon’s modus operandi as the company pushes its face surveillance system on law enforcement nationwide: provide expensive technology at reduced or no cost via a system of credits, shield Rekognition from public scrutiny through the use of non-disclosure agreements, and meanwhile use the contracts with public entities to train Amazon’s proprietary algorithms, presumably to sell the more accurate system at a profit in the future.

That Amazon would use this model is unsurprising. It is the traditional “growth before profit” business model that Silicon Valley has used to revolutionize transit, hospitality, and other industries: sell for less, grow, build a monopoly, then, once you control the market, raise prices and profit. But this time, the model is being applied to government procurement of artificial intelligence tools used for surveillance.

Amazon’s aggressive inroads to government surveillance have prompted fierce resistance from civil rights, civil liberties, immigrant, religious, and community groups across the country. Emails obtained by Buzzfeed show that the company hasn’t just been hitting back publicly; behind the scenes, Amazon has also been helping law enforcement with messaging in defense of Rekognition. In one of the emails, an Amazon employee whose name is redacted advises an also unknown Orlando Police Department official about how to respond to a CNN article that mentioned the ACLU  report highlighting that Amazon’s technology is inaccurate and racially biased. These communications show that Amazon is doing more than providing software to police departments; it is surreptitiously shaping the public narrative in favor of its own technology.

The emails Buzzfeed obtained also provide insight into how Amazon’s system works, revealing that the images captured by the Orlando Police cameras go directly to Amazon’s servers. The documents do not make clear whether the Orlando Police Department can control how Amazon uses these images, or what Amazon is or is not allowed to do with them.  

These issues matter, because we are not talking about the selling of clothes or pieces of furniture. As privacy scholars have recently argued, face surveillance is the “perfect tool for oppression.” Freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion are among those rights that are both most important to free societies and most threatened by face surveillance in the hands of law enforcement.

Researchers have found that face surveillance algorithms are bad at recognizing the faces of dark-skinned women. But even if the technology had perfect accuracy, it would be anathema to free society. When people are aware that their movements are being captured by a camera that constantly streams the content for law enforcement purposes, enabling persistent tracking and identification in real time and historically, political freedom wilts. Perfect control is the dream of an authoritarian government, not a democratic one.

The response to the threat from Amazon and other face surveillance companies is to exercise our democratic rights to protest, to support the free press, and to demand that our governments reject all-seeing surveillance. Join us now, before it’s too late.

This blog post was co-authored by Kade Crockford and Emiliano Falcon.

© 2024 ACLU of Massachusetts.