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CLOUD SURVEILLANCE

A county using Amazon’s facial recognition worried about giving off “a Big Brother vibe”

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren
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  • Dave Gershgorn
By Dave Gershgorn

Artificial intelligence reporter

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Amazon and the county of Washington, Oregon, have a cozy relationship revolving around the use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology for policing, according to documents released today (May 22) by the American Civil Liberties Union (pdf).

The tech company has been advising the local government on how best to use facial recognition for policing, according to the documents, including giving a sneak peek at Amazon’s roadmap for Amazon Web Services under a non-disclosure agreement.

The county, which has uploaded more than 300,000 mugshots to Amazon’s cloud, has used the facial recognition tools about 20 times per day, according to internal emails. Its police force has used the technology to identify suspected shoplifters from security footage, according to RouteFifty.

County representatives expected public blowback if civil-rights organizations like the ACLU learned about use of the Amazon technology.

“Even though our software is being used to identify persons of interest from images provided to the [Sheriff’s Office], the perception might be that we are constantly checking faces from everything, kind of a Big Brother vibe,” a county employee whose name was redacted wrote t0 Amazon. “They are concerned that ACLU might consider this the government getting in bed with big data.”

If the county did decide to scan video from police body cameras—which it is currently shopping for, according to the documents—there would be little besides public backlash to stop that from happening. Police camera companies like Axon (formerly known as Taser) are ramping up their own AI chops to compete with Amazon on this front, even acquiring AI companies to do so.

Use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology will likely spread. The records obtained by the ACLU show that local governments in Arizona and California have reached out to Washington county about how it implemented the system. The documents also show Orlando, Fla. in a similar relationship, even racking up more than $35,000 in free consulting from Amazon.

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