Amazon Facial Recognition

Brandon Bybee, Columnist

In late 2016, Amazon introduced a new online service that could identify people through facial recognition. Soon after that, they pitched the idea to law enforcement agencies, saying that it could help with criminal investigations. Some small customers used it such as the Orlando Police Department to encourage other, bigger, companies to use it, but it failed. According to The New York Times, the aggressiveness of the company is putting the it at the center of a discussion around facial recognition and law enforcement. Fans of the technology see a powerful new tool for catching criminals, but detractors see a destructive and invasive device.

The American Civil Liberties Union led a group of more than two dozen civil rights organizations that petitioned Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition system, called Rekognition, to law enforcement. The group says that the police could use it to track protesters or others who seem suspicious, rather than limiting it to people committing crimes, but the officials aren’t so sure about it. Facial recognition is not new technology, but the law enforcers seem to be focusing on Amazon because of its importance and to figure out why the company is moving away from customers themselves.

Many of the companies supplying the technology are security contractors not known to the public, but Amazon is one of the first major tech companies to actively sell facial recognition technology to law enforcement. The efforts are still a tiny part of Amazon’s business, with very few law enforcers using it, but few companies have Amazon’s ability to effectively sell a wide range of tech products, so it might have the advantage.

Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said Amazon’s facial recognition system was not being used for mass surveillance by the office. The company has a policy to use the technology only to identify a suspect in a criminal investigation, he said, and has no plans to use it with footage from body cameras or real-time surveillance systems. Hopefully this will change in the future and companies/law enforcers will start use it in the future, giving Amazon a chance to change the way companies and officers use technology.