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One of the few police departments to use Amazon’s facial recognition tech has stopped – for now

UPDATED: Tue., June 26, 2018

Volunteers carry petitions past one of the giant spheres at Amazon headquarters in an attempt to deliver them, Monday, June 18, 2018, in Seattle. Representatives of community-based organizations urged Amazon at a news conference to stop selling its face surveillance system, Rekognition, to the government. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
Volunteers carry petitions past one of the giant spheres at Amazon headquarters in an attempt to deliver them, Monday, June 18, 2018, in Seattle. Representatives of community-based organizations urged Amazon at a news conference to stop selling its face surveillance system, Rekognition, to the government. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)
By Hamza Shaban Washington Post

A Florida police department said that it would not immediately renew a pilot program with Amazon.com for controversial facial recognition technology, a decision that civil rights advocates claimed as a victory.

Orlando had deployed software, known as Rekognition, in five cameras at police headquarters and three cameras downtown during a six-month trial period.

“The City of Orlando is always looking for new solutions to further our ability to keep our residents and visitors safe,” the city of Orlando and the Orlando Police Department said in a joint statement Monday. “Partnering with innovative companies to test new technology – while also ensuring we uphold privacy laws and in no way violate the rights of others – is critical to us as we work to further keep our community safe.”

The existence of the pilot program was first revealed last month, when the American Civil Liberties Union published documents detailing Amazon’s sale of powerful facial recognition tools to several law enforcement agencies, including the Orlando police and Washington County, Oregon. The ACLU’s investigation sparked a public backlash, with a coalition of civil rights groups arguing such tools will be used to disproportionately target vulnerable minority communities.

On Monday, the ACLU Foundation of Florida and a host of civil society groups called on city of Orlando Chief of Police John Mina to renounce the use of facial recognition technology as a law enforcement tool. In response, Orlando said the pilot program already had expired last week. Orlando officials did say, however, that no decision has been made whether to continue the pilot in the future.

Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.

Matt Cagle, a technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of California who co-authored the investigative report on Amazon, said people in Orlando and around the country don’t want face surveillance technology used in their communities. “While the city of Orlando is taking the right step by not renewing its contract for Amazon’s face surveillance technology, Orlando must listen to its community members and publicly commit to not using the dangerous technology – now or in the future,” he said.

Highlighting the reservations people have with the normalization of biometric surveillance in American life, Brian Brackeen, the chief executive of the facial recognition technology company Kairos, said Monday he would not sell his tools to law enforcement agencies, and neither should anyone else. Brackeen, who is black, said in an essay on Techcrunch that facial recogntition technology contains biases against people of color and can be used to dehumanize entire populations.

“In a social climate wracked with protests and angst around disproportionate prison populations and police misconduct, engaging software that is clearly not ready for civil use in law enforcement activities does not serve citizens, and will only lead to further unrest,” he wrote. “Whether or not you believe government surveillance is okay, using commercial facial recognition in law enforcement is irresponsible and dangerous.”

Orlando’s announcement arrives as employees at Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have protested against their companies’ tech partnerships with government agencies. Last week, workers at Amazon began circulating an internal email calling on Bezos to cut the company’s business ties with (ICE), and to end the sale of facial recognition tech to law enforcement agencies. “Our company should not be in the surveillance business; we should not be in the policing business; we should not be in the business of supporting those who monitor and oppress marginalized populations,” the email stated.

Similar efforts have already prompted policy changes at Google. After a slew of resignations and outcry over an artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon, officials at the company said the deal would not be renewed and that Google will bar the development of AI that can be used in weapons. Microsoft’s chief executive was also pressured to answer internal criticism over the company’s contract with ICE. After employees there called for the end of $20 million contract, chief executive Satya Nadella tried to reassure workers at Microsoft that the company’s business with ICE was unrelated to the Trump administration policy of separating migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.

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