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Amazon Pushes Facial Recognition to Police, Prompting Outcry Over Surveillance (nytimes.com) 143

Nick Wingfield, reporting for The New York Times: In late 2016, Amazon introduced a new online service that could help identify faces and other objects in images, offering it to anyone at a low cost through its giant cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services. Not long after, it began pitching the technology to law enforcement agencies, saying the program could aid criminal investigations by recognizing suspects in photos and videos. It used a couple of early customers, like the Orlando Police Department in Florida and the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon, to encourage other officials to sign up.

But now that aggressive push is putting the giant tech company at the center of an increasingly heated debate around the role of facial recognition in law enforcement. Fans of the technology see a powerful new tool for catching criminals, but detractors see an instrument of mass surveillance. On Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union led a group of more than two dozen civil rights organizations that asked Amazon to stop selling its image recognition system, called Rekognition, to law enforcement. The group says that the police could use it to track protesters or others whom authorities deem suspicious, rather than limiting it to people committing crimes.

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Amazon Pushes Facial Recognition to Police, Prompting Outcry Over Surveillance

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  • by Anonymous Coward

    Amazon, Google, Microsoft, et al. The problem with these companies is that they want to be everything to everyone. Impossible. Do one or maybe two things really well and focus only on those things. Evil results otherwise, as we are seeing.

  • You are either a Prime Citizen or a Suspect.

  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Tuesday May 22, 2018 @10:53AM (#56653160)

    I get that Law Enforcement in general is trying to help the public, and are trying to find tools to make their job easier and more efficient. However in order to protect our freedoms law enforcement needs to be hard work, even if it means our lives are measurable less safe.

    We cannot have Safety and Freedom. For increase safety there is a trade-off in freedom. While there may be some rules that will increase safety by a factor of ten and reduce freedom by one tenth, and may be considered a fair trade off, there are other things that may give us marginal safety benefits with a large hit to our freedom.

    Law Enforcement professionals work with the scum of the earth all the time, this is affecting their judgement, and their job is to keep people safe. So I do not fault them for wanting more tools to make their job easier and more effective. However we as citizens need to stand up and say. "We thank you for the effort and your hard work. But we can't let your job be easier at a high costs of our freedoms"

    • by imrahilj ( 3553503 ) on Tuesday May 22, 2018 @10:57AM (#56653196)
      I think this is the way to think about things. The problem is that once a freedom decreasing measure is tried, it brings along with it a bureaucracy that will argue for it's continued existence, regardless of effectiveness. The TSA brought us a decrease in freedom, without an observable increase in security. Now that it exists, however, any discussion of its failings will not lead to a discussion about dismantling the TSA, it will only lead to discussions about how it must use more resources and be more intrusive. The ratchet swings only one way.
      • This is why I am against AI laws/regulation. It will not protect me, it will however do the opposite and guarantee rights to AI controllers.
        Look at what has happened with all other legislation where corporate differences abide.
        Most legislation of this type is used as a tool by corporate interests to protect their own interests and limit competition.

        Law enforcement already has facial recognition, my guess there is more that just FR being offered here, likely it is access to data.

        Amazon must be getting access

        • This is why I am against AI laws/regulation. It will not protect me, it will however do the opposite and guarantee rights to AI controllers.

          Oddly enough, this statement looks almost exactly like my reasons for being against both AI laws/regulation and gun laws/regulation...

          Note further that I expect that we'll have both kinds of laws regulations springing up real soon, followed, by and by, by the people now calling for such laws/regulations to whinge when said laws/regulations impact them adversely....

      • Law enforcement should be difficult. It's getting so that only the people running the system can abuse it. How will future terrorists who help the US go to war have a chance to convincingly board an airplane and do some damage?

        "I see here that the All Pervasive, All Knowing AI was turned off the entire time Al Bombolla took his one way trip to the capital." And the "Super Financial Transaction Crime detector will need a built in flaw on any transaction over $1 Billion unless they want to be constantly wakin

    • by Kohath ( 38547 )

      "We thank you for the effort and your hard work. But we can't let your job be easier at a high costs of our freedoms"

      It only impacts your freedom because busybodies passed thousands and thousands of laws to punish thousands of non-violent behaviors and decisions. Repeal the laws against everything and you won't have to worry so much about your freedom. (Keep and enforce the laws against violence and you won't have to worry so much about your safety either.)

      Technology doesn't move backward. And even if you make rules against law enforcement using this technology, since when does law enforcement obey rules? Law enforcem

      • Laws do need to enforced beyond the Violent people. There is a lot of degrees of safety beyond just physical harm. But many laws need to be enforced justly. A benefit of the law vs the cost should be evaluated, also the intensity of the enforcement. We are stuck on the idea of English Law, where Law is Law and Context doesn't matter.

        Were you driving 15mph past the speed limit. "Yes" That will be a $150 fine and points off your license. "But it was a straight road, with no traffic and I can see for miles

        • by Kohath ( 38547 )

          Laws do need to enforced beyond the Violent people. There is a lot of degrees of safety beyond just physical harm.

          Not as much as you imply. Beyond physical harm, property crimes need to be enforced because if they aren't then people will take their justice privately.

          But many, many laws don't meet a "compelling state interest" test. They aren't necessary. Some guys a long time ago thought they'd be nice to have. That's not compatible with the culture and technology any more.

          But many laws need to be enforced justly.

          That's not going to happen. Laws will be enforced aggressively on some groups while other groups get a pass. The only solution is fewer laws:

      • by swb ( 14022 )

        This should be upvoted.

        Nearly every law passed is done so with the idea -- not even consciously considered -- that enforcement isn't 100% automatic and perfectly efficient.

        Speed enforcement is pretty good example -- nearly everyone rationally accepts that there should be speed limits on most roads for general safety. Yet speed cameras face a ton of opposition and probably from the same people who wouldn't even argue for Autobahn-style "no speed limits" in Montana.

        I think if we get to the point of perfect e

        • by Kohath ( 38547 )

          If you aren’t driving recklessly, how is your speed anyone’s business? If you are driving recklessly, there are specific laws with severe penalties for such behavior.

          The whole idea of speed enforcement on roads is very backward looking, very “inside the box" thinking. Auto accidents and injuries per mile driven are a tiny tiny fraction of what they once were. And we are on the cusp of a technological revolution that will make car crashes with injuries rare enough to warrant a segment on

          • by swb ( 14022 )

            I knew somebody would debate this, but what exactly does "reckless" mean?

            I think it is ambiguous enough that it leaves room for someone arguing that 60 in a 30 zone is fine because they're super good at driving, there's nobody using the road, or some other reason.

            I think some speed limits represent real concerns, like the time to stop relative to the potential for someone to cross the road, or to provide a predictable velocity of oncoming traffic for people trying to cross a road on foot or in a car.

            • by Kohath ( 38547 )

              I knew somebody would debate this, but what exactly does "reckless" mean?

              It means what the law defines it to mean. Google says "reckless driving is often defined as a mental state in which the driver displays a wanton disregard for the rules of the road; the driver misjudges common driving procedures, often causing wrecks, accidents and other damages." If it's ambiguous, then the jury will say "not guilty".

              I think it is ambiguous enough that it leaves room for someone arguing that 60 in a 30 zone is fine because they're super good at driving, there's nobody using the road, or some other reason.

              That's a road design issue or an abuse of the law to profit from fines. If your road is perfectly straight and there are no obstructions or traffic, and you need people to g

        • by deesine ( 722173 )

          Somehow we've come to accept that $300 is somehow "just punishment" for speeding, when it's really just a raw revenue grab with many officer's time dedicated to just that. We've been conditioned that this is ok, in the country of No Taxation Without Representation!

          • I'd be all for automated camera enforcement. Set speed limits at reasonable levels (say 30mph in built-up areas, 70-80mph on freeways). Set the cameras at 5-10 mph over that limit. Fines should be a % of income, so as to make them as painful to the rich as to the poor.

            Automate the traffic cops out of a job -- added bonus is that cameras can't pull someone over because of their color or their type of car, so the racism/classism argument would go away. Cameras also can't go on a fishing expedition and th

            • I'd be all for automated camera enforcement.

              Unfortunately, the people who run the cameras are corrupt as all hell. The problem is that once you privatize or commercialize automobile, yhey realize that after analysis that they can alter the settings just a little bit, and.....

              Profit!

              http://www.chicagotribune.com/... [chicagotribune.com]

              http://www.thegazette.com/subj... [thegazette.com]

              http://www.moremonmouthmusings... [moremonmouthmusings.net]

              One of the biggest tricks aside form massaging speed numbers is shortening the Yellow light times to the point where if you see yellow, you better stomp the brake

    • by Anonymous Coward

      These systems were set up under a few laws when it was easy to know if you're a criminal or not. Now everybody is guilty of felonious behavior every day and the authorities only need want to do them in to arrest them. Ask a cop sometime if he could find a reason to arrest you. If you're not a black man he may give you an honest answer and not arrest you.

      This is the primary utilitarian problem with mass surveillance and the desire to avoid it is symptomatic of tyranny.

    • I don't get that they're trying to help the public. Most cops went into the job because they're too stupid to go into politics, washed out of the military, but still want some combination of power over other people and adoration. US policing generally attracts the wrong kind of people.
      • Most cops went into the job because ... , washed out of the military ...

        I seem to remember reading or hearing about that cops who were former military were less likely to shoot someone and generally did a better job. Yup it appears that I did read that [npr.org] so I would prefer to have more ex-military cops given the available evidence.

        • I was reading an article the other day about a Special Forces chap who went back to his hometown of Savannah, Georgia and has the bizarre idea of treating citizens as neighbours not baddies.
          What struck me was how poorly paid the job is $40,000 p.a.

          In NZ new cops out of college get $NZ 62,000 which is roughly the same but goes up from there. Also they had old Crown Victoria's that were in need of replacement etc.

          Quite surprising, you pay peanuts and you will get monkeys.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by gweihir ( 88907 )

      Law enforcement must be hard and it must be unable to catch all criminals or even most of them. Because the alternative is a police-state and that is much, much worse than having some unsolved crime. Law enforcement itself is mostly unable to see that problem. They believe by solving all crime, they make a better society. Unfortunately, nothing could be farther from the truth. They routinely overlook what that does to freedom and they usually completely forget that "the law" and right and wrong can be arbit

      • Nah, most dumb cops in the US just see their careers and an opportunity to control people. They don't even think enough to think "better society."
    • However in order to protect our freedoms law enforcement needs to be hard work, even if it means our lives are measurable less safe.

      I agree with that generally, but not in this context.

      If you are in public anyone can see you. What is the ethical difference between an investigator or member of the public seeing you walking around and calling the police, vs. an automated system scanning every face in the city? There is only a difference in scale, not in ethics.

      Now where I would start to question things woul

      • What's the difference between recognition and tracking? If a spy-camera recognizes you, it knows you, John Doe, were at point A at 12:41PM, and the next spy-camera that recognizes you knows you were at point B at 12:43PM, etc, etc. Unless you're advocating not keeping the data unless there's a match to a specific face.
        • In a well-functioning law enforcement system, the police wouldn't have access to any of the data collected by the cameras and recognition systems until a judge signed a warrant specifying exactly which locations, times, and/or people are relevant to a specific crime.
          • Better yet, the data shouldn't be collected. We don't need to solve every crime -- a crime-free society is a totalitarian one.
            • I know that it's impossible to solve every single crime, but I would like to see as many solved as is reasonable. If adequate protections were in place, I would be okay with such data being treated as any other search, especially, as I said, with regards to needing a warrant.

              Of course, I have no illusions that our current system functions the way it would need to before I'd agree to collecting this data. I'm speaking purely hypothetically.
        • it knows you, John Doe, were at point A at 12:41PM, and the next spy-camera that recognizes you knows you were at point B at 12:43PM, etc, etc. Unless you're advocating not keeping the data unless there's a match to a specific face.

          Exactly - if you are not a Person of Interest (just to throw a TV reference in there), I would say ethically you'd want the system to not keep track of who it was it recognized being there.

          But the reality of course, is far different - as I mentioned with the repo firm, there are

    • by geggam ( 777689 )

      Law Enforcement is there to enforce the laws. Laws should help the public, many times they do not

    • No, law enforcement is trying to instill order. Their job, which was decided by supreme court cases, was to maintain public order, NOT help the public. I've been a cop and had to quit being a cop because I didn't see the public as the enemy. The scumbags, yes, but public != scumbags though some(public) == scumbags. OTOH some(cops) == scumbags too. I agree with everything else you say.
    • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
      Depends on what a nation will do. The US has clear legal guidance on that

      "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized"

      So it takes a lot of work with the private sector and contractors domestically in the USA for polic
  • by cascadingstylesheet ( 140919 ) on Tuesday May 22, 2018 @10:53AM (#56653162)

    Well ... if Amazon is selling this to whoever, then I'm sure some "protesters" will also use this to face ID people at the "wrong" political rallies, etc.

    Since "protesters" love to get people fired, blacklisted, harassed at home, etc. that should be fun.

    It's the tech genie. You can force yourself to put it back in the bottle, maybe, but you can't really force everyone to do so.

    • Oh I'm sure there are already organizations who've signed up but presumably only state/local gov't agencies would have access to the camera networks. That doesn't preclude the use of a few well placed go-pros at protests that could also serve as a data source as well.

    • by crtreece ( 59298 )
      How about protesters use this tech to identify agent provocateurs planted by LEO and inciting violence?
    • Well ... if Amazon is selling this to whoever, then I'm sure some "protesters" will also use this to face ID people at the "wrong" political rallies, etc.

      You mean neo-nazis, right? White supremacy isn't a political position, it's racism.

      Since "protesters" love to get people fired, blacklisted, harassed at home, etc. that should be fun.

      The solution is simple, don't be a racist.

      The irony of racism is that the highest level of genetic diversity (lots of "race mixing") ultimately results in superior offspring. That's not a political view, that's scientific fact (see also Darwinism).

      • Problem is, it's not only racists who get affected -- liberal protestors get doxxed just as often. Especially if they're fighting against police abuse.
  • where is the line? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by supernova87a ( 532540 ) <kepler1&hotmail,com> on Tuesday May 22, 2018 @10:55AM (#56653170)
    Ok, I know there is somehow a fundamental difference between a computer system with unlimited memory and processing power, versus a person who has really good memory.

    But entertain me on this thought experiment. Why is having a police force use such a system so different from if they had on their payroll someone who was really really good at remembering faces? Or someone who knew everyone in town?

    At what point is an automated / faster system an unreasonable infringement of your rights compared to what each of us can do to some degree? Is it the natural size (200-300 people?) of our memory and human facial recognition that sets the limit on what is an invasion of privacy or not? Where is the line? What is different about using this system compared to a police officer asking everyone he/she can find whether they know person X?

    I find the definition of reasonable privacy difficult to nail down.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      They ostensibly have good judgment - a human in the loop, doing the watching, seems to be where society is comfortable placing the limit on police surveillance. Police, like all other humans, tend to laziness and shortcuts. Every form of automation expands the scope of potential abuses. Western civilization isn't quite mature enough to properly use technology without trampling all over its primary freedoms. We might get to a point in a few decades where we do find a proper use for tools like this. Big data

    • NO! NOOOOOOOOO!!!
      I will not sacrifice our privacy rights. We've made too many compromises already, too many retreats. They mine our personal data, and we fall back. They assimilate entire databases, and we fall back. Not again! The line must be drawn here! This far, no further! And I will make them PAY for what they've done!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 22, 2018 @11:58AM (#56653606)

      You're missing the point. No one actually really cares about them scanning faces.

      What people care about is other people then using that data to do bad things, stalking, harassment, silencing political opponents, blackmail etc. All of which are things that have repeatedly happened with state and private surveillance. The real privacy issue is that you can't trust others to actually be responsible and hold themselves correctly accountable to even entertain the idea of giving people this power.

    • by Kiuas ( 1084567 )

      But entertain me on this thought experiment. Why is having a police force use such a system so different from if they had on their payroll someone who was really really good at remembering faces? Or someone who knew everyone in town?

      Okay I will try my best. I Just recently I warthed the documentary about automated surveillance systems sold to and used by the police both in the US and here in Europe called Pre-crime [imdb.com] after the concept from Minority Report. The doc itself was alright, not the best, I would hav

      • Agreed, these new "intelligent" software-based systems aren't perfect, yet they are still very powerful tools. I'm not concerned that innocent people might be flagged & scrutinized. That's what the human operator is for: to screen "possibles" produced by the computer, & separate the true criminals from the innocent people talking about metal bands & fantasy games. In short, there's nothing wrong with the authorities using facial recognition, so long as our agencies continue to prosecute the guil
    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      I think you're falling into a nerd trap by pretending we don't have black and white even though we haven't exactly narrowed down the shade of gray that marks the border, like when does a fan become a stalker or perseverance become harassment or a bad deal become a fraud. We're never going to exactly define how high you can go on a rooftop and how big a telephoto lens you can use before it's an invasion of privacy. I think we need restrictions on collection, storage and sharing of data and metadata, I don't

    • You do not ask the person with memory all the time what somebody is doing all the time even if there is no need for it.

    • by dave562 ( 969951 )

      You left out a very important variable in your equation. A single person can only be in one place at one time. A facial recognition system is everywhere.

      For me, I think that there needs to be a limit on the extent of the investigation. To use the example from Washington County, the system was used to identify a thief. That is obviously a good outcome.

      How many people who were not the thief, were investigated?

      If during that investigation the police discovered one of those other people doing something ille

    • it lowers the bar for abuse. It makes all sorts of nasty things that weren't practical suddenly worthwhile. There's all sorts of implications on this. For one thing, we have pretty uneven law enforcement in this country. A popular example is a pretty woman in a low cut dress getting out of speeding tickets. A not so popular example is how our drug war is waged mostly on minorities and was started by Nixon to attack the left.

      On the one hand if big data forces even law enforcement that's a good thing. But
      • That's funny about the pretty woman. Cops in the town where I grew up were caught for selectively pulling over pretty women, and giving them the choice between a sexual act and a trip to jail. Fortunately, they eventually picked on the wrong woman -- I think at least one of them got some serious jail time. (Hopefully he'll be on the other end of the situation in prison.)
    • I find the definition of reasonable privacy difficult to nail down.

      Probably because you never spent a single minute thinking about others peoples rights of privacy?

      If they are looking for _you_ and figure you were at 11:00PM at Times Square, for what fucking reason do they need to have _me_ in the database pointing out _I_ was at 11:00PM at the Louvre?

    • You're really asking what the difference is between an automated system that can scan/process millions of photos in a searchable database with what a single person can remember?

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Yes, the tech is all wonderful and "could" help catch criminals... or anyone else you please.

    Meaning that it's a fuckton of power you're putting in the hands of law enforcement. And we put restrictions on the amount of power we put in their hands for a very clear and tangible reason. So, dear proponents, how do you propose to restrict this awesomely powerful thing so that it will do more good than evil, hm? I'd love to hear your well-thought-out explanations of just how your plans and measures will work. An

  • The tech isn't the problem, the police and the laws are the problem. If you're in public, you won't be able to hide. It's long past time we change our laws and reform our law enforcement so regular people won't see any need to hide.

    Time for a government that's less authoritarian and less punitive. Let us live our own lives and make our own choices.

    • by Cederic ( 9623 )

      Yeah, I find it hard to berate Amazon for this. Can facial recognition when used correctly provide societal good through improved law enforcement? Of course.

      The issue is whether it'll be used correctly.

      Anybody having a go at Amazon over this also needs to have a go at any company that sells firearms, cars, uniforms, radios, coffee or anything else to the police.

      • You're implying that improved law enforcement is a societal good in itself. Preventing murders, beatings, and robberies is a social good. Catching teenagers having a beer, people smoking a joint, fining jaywalkers where there's little to no traffic, etc, are just the government and their hired thugs (cops) being meddlesome.
        • by Cederic ( 9623 )

          No, I'm not. I'm saying that societal good can be achieved through improved law enforcement, and that this technology can help.

          How you define 'improved law enforcement' is a political discussion that's entirely fucking irrelevant to my point.

          • I'm saying that laws in the US are already over-enforced. Societal good would be achieved through inefficient and degraded law enforcement. e.g. when DeBlasio pissed off the cop union in NYC and cops went on "strike", refusing to arrest for minor offenses or give parking tickets, violent crime didn't go up. Life went on, and people got a respite from harassment for a while.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Humans forget. Humans forgive.

    A picture can still have people cry bloody murder, 50 years later.
    And statistically, it's said that there are about 5000 people with the reasons, the will and the means to actually murder you for it.

    And then there's the whole Cardinal Richelieu "7 lines to hang a man" problem.

    This is why the equivalent amount of human cops would be quite a different thing. (Aside from showing more visibly, how totalitarion society has become.)

  • I'd wager when a politician or two is ID'd with someone they would prefer not to be associated with and it cause political problems for them we'll see some laws enacted.
    • All political entities except the "scapegoats" will be excluded from facial recognition databases.

      Just like political callers are exempt from the robo calling regulation....

  • Look I totes get it, surveillance state yadda yadda. I hate it as much as the next guy here. But why try to stop the progress? This is just algorithms and database, if Amazon can offer such a service but is talked out of it somehow then someone else will. If you want to stop this, there has to be legislation against this kind of service, rather than pushback against isolated incidents. And even then someone would eventually make "black" version if the AI scraping off public databases. Either way privacy is

    • A geometric increase in insanity requires a geometrically stronger response to it. The control freaks, the power-addicted, they'll use your "just algorithms and database" and it won't be pretty. Regulations are farcical. They're selectively used to control and obtain power.

      Instead, the US right of free association should come without fear, any fear. Monitoring and surveillance stanch the courage to be free, and freely associate with whomever and whenever you as a citizen want to, unfettered by peering eyes

    • But why try to stop the progress?

      If you were in a wagon that was progressing towards a 100' high bluff, why wouldn't you try to stop it?

      "Progress" is just movement in a direction - not necessarily a good one.

      One can progress towards a precipice of destruction just as easily as they can progress towards enlightenment.

  • We already have mass surveillance everywhere. We have license plate trackers that scan you not only while you're parked but while you conduct your daily business driving. We have surveillance systems at every store, nearly every business and now more and more homes. Congress for years has had a war on cash to take care of "scofflaws of taxation" but it's really about tracking every financial transaction you do as well. All Amazon does is take images and associate
    you with your picture to tie up the loose

  • you can have NO DOUBT the CIA and NSA ALREADY ARE !!.

  • I mean really... It baffles me how much people don't know about the state of Biometrics and their use around the world and this country. "ZOMG!! Law enforcement has this new tool that's going to steal my privacy!!" News Flash: Law enforcement from the local to the federal level have had this technology and have been using it successfully for 30+ years now.. Amazon's latest effort is pretty good but it's not even close to the forensic quality algorithms the "quieter" side of the industry have at their dispo

  • The solution is simple. Stop posting every single mundane second of yourself online.
  • The problem isn't facial recognition, or Amazon; it's the police and self-appointed (yes, 'wider society' appoints them, blah blah) groups with a monopoly on coercive force. Oh yeah, and the mindset which would lead someone to join this type of group.

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