- Amazon’s incredibly lucrative web services division sells facial recognition software to police departments all over the United States.
- Facial recognition software isn’t regulated by the US government, and oversight is handled entirely at Amazon’s discretion.
- In a new interview with Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy, he reveals how little insight Amazon has into how its tech is used: The company isn’t aware of how many police departments are using their software, let alone how it’s being used.
- “I don’t think we know the total number of police departments that are using [Amazon’s] facial recognition technology,” Jassy told PBS’ Frontline. “We have 165 services in our technology infrastructure platform, and you can use them in any combination you want.
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Amazon is a massive conglomerate that encompasses a digital storefront in Amazon.com, a video streaming service in Amazon Prime Video, and a major grocery chain in Whole Foods.
In addition to all those different businesses, Amazon also runs a major facial recognition service aptly named Amazon Rekognition.
Rekognition – which Amazon says “provides highly accurate facial analysis and facial search capabilities that you can use to detect, analyse, and compare faces for a wide variety of user verification, people counting, and public safety use cases” – is used by police departments all over the United States. It’s one of dozens of software applications created by Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) division.
But how many police departments are using Amazon’s facial recognition technology? And to what ends?
The answers to those questions remain unknown following a new interview with the Amazon executive charged with overseeing the company’s cloud computing group, AWS.
Andy Jassy, who serves as CEO of AWS, was one of several Amazon executives who appeared in a PBS Frontline documentary, titled “Amazon Empire: The Rise and Reign of Jeff Bezos,” which aired this week.
When asked how many police departments across the US are using Amazon’s facial recognition tech, Jassy said, “I don’t think we know the total number of police departments that are using [Amazon’s] facial recognition technology. We have 165 services in our technology infrastructure platform, and you can use them in any combination you want.”
Amazon is notorious for tracking user behaviour in minute detail across its website. The company apparently isn’t applying that same attention to detail with its facial recognition technology.
Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) division, the group which creates and operates Amazon’s suite of cloud technology products, brought in nearly $US10 billion in revenue last quarter alone. Beyond offering facial recognition services, the AWS group offers dozens of services aimed at a variety of different uses – from analytics to computing to robotics.
Amazon’s Rekognition software is one of the most potentially problematic pieces of the AWS suite.
Beyond any of the documented issues with police departments using facial recognition software to identify criminal suspects, such as misidentification and algorithmic biases, there is no governmental oversight in place to oversee its operation.
Amazon handles this the same way it enforces policies on any of its platforms.
“If we find we have customers, regardless of who they are, who are misusing the technology and violating people’s civil liberties and violating the law, and we have documented proof of that, we will suspend their ability to use our platform,” Jassy said.
He also said that Amazon has pushed for federal regulation of facial recognition software – a statement echoed in Amazon’s “Our Positions” letter: “We think that governments should act to regulate the use of this technology to ensure it’s used appropriately, and we have proposed guidelines for an appropriate US national legislative framework that protects individual civil rights and ensures that governments are transparent in their application of the technology.”
For now, though, there are no federal laws in place to make sure that facial recognition technology isn’t being misused –some cities and states have banned its use by public officials, and a bipartisan effort in Congress has sporadically attempted to pass legislation that might regulate its use.
As Frontline’s interviewer James Jacoby points out, without government oversight, Amazon is the sole arbiter of oversight into police use of the facial recognition technology it sells.
Watch the full interview with Jassy right here: