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ACLU tells AWS: Stop selling facial recognition tools to the government

Forty civil rights groups sent a letter to Jeff Bezos, decrying the fact that Amazon is helping law enforcement agencies use its Rekognition service.

More than three dozen civil rights organizations, led by the ACLU, sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on Tuesday, demanding his company stop providing government agencies with facial recognition technology.

The letter comes after the ACLU obtained new information about Amazon's efforts to help local law enforcement deploy Rekognition, an image recognition and analysis service.

Amazon should "take Rekognition off the table for governments," says the letter, signed by groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Human Rights Watch and Data for Black Lives. "People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom."

Pointing out that Amazon has publicly opposed secret government surveillance and that Bezos has supported First Amendment rights, the letter says, "Rekognition product runs counter to these values."

Amazon has not been shy about its collaborative efforts with law enforcement. In fact, at last year's re:Invent conference, the company highlighted its partnership with the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon.

Chris Adzima, the office's senior information systems analyst, told conference attendees how he uploaded around 300,000 mugshot images into the S3 cloud and indexed them with Rekognition. The office was quickly able to use the service to identify suspected criminals. Adzima described how the Sheriff's Office used Rekognition along with publicly available images on Facebook to identify a suspected shoplifter.

Adzima also described ways law enforcement could use Rekognition even more broadly -- for instance, identifying suspects by using the service on artist renditions of criminals, or sharing data with other law enforcement agencies.

After Amazon highlighted its law enforcement customers in Oregon and Orlando, Florida, the ACLU requested public records in Oregon, California and Florida to learn more about government use of Rekognition. The documents provided showed how Amazon provided product support and offered free consulting services to the government. The ACLU specifically asked for any evidence that the public had been given an opportunity to discuss the use of this technology before its deployment, but no such evidence was provided. However, one email from a Washington County employee acknowledged that "the perception might be that we are constantly checking faces from everything, kind of a Big Brother vibe."