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ACLU Questions Orlando Police Pilot of Amazon's Facial Recognition System

While Orlando officials say they are testing Amazon's Rekognition system in a very limited capacity, the American Civil Liberties Union and other privacy activists are asking Amazon to stop marketing the tool to law enforcement agencies.

(TNS) — The Orlando Police Department is working with Amazon to test a high-tech facial-recogition system, according to records made public Tuesday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU said it found the records during an investigation into Amazon’s Rekognition system, which the company says can use surveillance footage to pick a person out of a crowd and track its target in real time.

In a statement, Orlando police spokesman Sgt. Eduardo Bernal said OPD’s use of Rekognition is “extremely restricted” — limited to eight city-owned cameras and using facial imaging only from a “handful” of officers who volunteered to test the technology.

No images of the public are being used in the pilot and the Rekognition system is also not being used “in an investigative capacity,” he said.

“To be clear, this partnership with Amazon includes testing to see if the technology even works,” Bernal said. “At this time in the pilot, as it is still very early on in this process, we have no data that supports or does not support that the Rekognition technology works.”

In a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the ACLU joined with 34 organizations, including the ACLU of Florida, in expressing “profound concerns” about the potential for Rekognition to be abused.

“People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government,” said the letter, dated Tuesday. “Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom.”

In a statement, Amazon said it “requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible” when using its services. Rekognition, the company said, “has many useful applications,” such as finding lost children or abducted people.

“Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology,” the company’s statement said.

Records released by the ACLU show Amazon provided free consulting to Orlando to establish the pilot program. Jessica Garcia, a spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer, said the pilot did not require City Council approval and no city funding has been used for the test.

In a video posted to YouTube by Amazon Web Services Korea, Amazon’s Ranju Das called Orlando a “launch partner,” demonstrating how the system works using what he described as an Orlando traffic camera.

The demonstration showed a residential street. As people appear on camera — four exiting a vehicle, one walking a dog — the system began tracking them, displaying the path they walked in colored dots.

“They have cameras all over the city,” he said. “The authorized cameras are then streaming the data … We are a subscriber to the stream. We analyze the video in real time, search against the collection of faces that they have.”

A quote from Orlando police Chief John Mina is featured on Amazon’s “customers” page for Rekognition, in which he says the city is “excited to work with Amazon to pilot the latest in public safety software.” He was quoted as saying the pilot will use Amazon’s technology with existing city resources to “provide real-time detection and notification of persons-of-interest, further increasing public safety.”

The ACLU expressed concern that facial recognition technology could be used to target political activists or immigrants, or to disproportionately surveil people of color in its letter and a press release.

Nicole Ozer, the ACLU of California’s technology and civil liberties director, said in a statement that Amazon’s marketing materials for Rekognition “read like a user manual for authoritarian surveillance.”

“Particularly in the current political climate, we need to stop supercharged surveillance before it is used to track protesters, target immigrants, and spy on entire neighborhoods,” she said.

©2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.