Orlando Stops Using Amazon’s Face-Scanning Tech Amid Spying Concerns

Amazon’s facial recognition software is no longer being used in Orlando, government and police officials said in a joint statement this week, in the wake of criticism from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The tool, Amazon Rekognition, is directly marketed to U.S. law enforcement, and the ACLU in May revealed that the Florida city had used it since 2017. On Monday, the ACLU called for the “secretive” program to be scrapped, noting that it lacked public consent and could potentially be exploited to “conduct mass location tracking of residents without criminal suspicion.”

The city has decided to drop the scheme, for now at least, noting that the Rekognition pilot had expired last week. “Staff continues to discuss and evaluate whether to recommend continuation of the pilot at a further date,” police and government officials told floridapolitics.com on Monday.

“At this time that process in still ongoing and the contract with Amazon remains expired. 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 […] keep our community safe.”

Jeff Bezos Jeff Bezos, chief executive officer of Amazon, listens during a meeting of technology executives with then-President elect Donald Trump at Trump Tower on December 14, 2016, in New York City. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The ACLU's Florida legal director, Nancy Abudu, urged Orlando mayor Buddy Dyer to drop the platform this week, commenting in a lengthy letter that the software was “primed” for abuse.

She wrote: “People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Face surveillance in Orlando threatens this freedom, particularly where government agencies deploy it without community debate, without local legislative oversight, and without rules to prevent abusive use. Therefore, we demand that Orlando immediately suspend its use of Rekognition.”

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment from Newsweek.

According to Reuters, Orlando police said it did not use the technology for active investigations. 

Criticism of face-scanning technology—which is also flogged by major companies including Google and Microsoft—is no longer confined to privacy campaigners. Last week, Amazon staff circulated a letter demanding CEO Jeff Bezos stop selling the software to U.S. law enforcement. They also spoke out about tech links to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

“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 workers wrote. Similar activism hit Google over its links to a U.S. drone program codenamed as Project Maven. Microsoft was also slammed last week for providing technology products to ICE in the light of the Trump administration's immigration policy of separating families.

In a blog post published on June 1, Amazon’s general manager of artificial intelligence, Dr. Matt Wood, attempted to play down concerns about the software, which can perform “real-time face searches against collections with tens of millions of faces” and index up to 100 faces from a single image.

“[Amazon] takes its responsibilities seriously,” Wood stated. “But we believe it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future.” He continued: “The world would be a very different place if we had restricted people from buying computers because it was possible to use that computer to do harm.”

Amazon Eye In this photo illustration a woman has the online retailer Amazon logo reflected in her eye as she shops online on August 11, 2014, in Bristol, United Kingdom. Matt Cardy/Getty Images