Contrary to earlier reports, Orlando police confirmed this week that they will renew a contract with Amazon to pilot its controversial face recognition software, Rekognition — a move that is sure to reignite concerns of privacy and civil liberties advocates who have pushed back against law enforcement’s use of the technology.
The American Civil Liberties Union released emails in June that provided new details on how police were using Rekognition. In response, Amazon employees, shareholders, as well as civil rights groups wrote letters petitioning Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to end the contracts with police.
While the original test period ended, the OPD will soon sit down with Amazon representatives to outline the new pilot, the police department told The Orlando Sentinel.
“It’s really to prevent the next tragedy,” Orlando Police Chief John Mina said.
News of OPD supposedly ending its use of Rekognition on footage captured by a number of CCTV cameras came just a day after the ACLU sent a letter to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer regarding the face recognition program. But the end date for the initial pilot period had already been selected — it just happened to coincide with the ACLU’s report and the ensuing backlash from civil rights groups.
Now, with the program set to continue, Dyer says the practice is not as dystopian as it seems.
“Facial recognition is already being used everywhere,” Dyer told the Sentinel.
“I see people open their iPhones with it. When I come back in the country they do facial recognition for my Customs and Border Patrol entry. This is just using it in a little bit broader sense for crime prevention or crime apprehension. I think we’ll be able to balance that need. It’s not something where we’re going big brother and following everybody.”
Details on the new pilot are sparse. OPD confirmed it will test Rekognition on at least eight cameras, as it did before, though their location isn’t known. In the previous trial program, five Rekognition-enabled cameras captured footage at OPD headquarters, while three additional cameras were positioned in downtown Orlando.
As Mayor Dyer points out, face recognition is becoming increasingly common — airports use it, as do football stadiums, concert halls, even primary schools.
A memo between the Mayor’s Office and OPD officials, which an OPD spokesperson shared with Gizmodo, mentions using face recognition on visitors in schools to check against sex offender databases. Schools in New York are exploring this option as well.
During its initial testing phase, Rekognition will scan officers’ faces against a face database made up of volunteers. The plan, the OPD memo explains, is for officers themselves to walk in front of the cameras and record how accurately the technology recognises them from different angles, with different clothes, or other variables.
It’s not known how long this initial testing phase will last, though the city plans to draft proposed regulations before any public rollout begins. It’s worth noting that pilot itself requires no public approval, and Dyer has wholeheartedly supported Rekognition.
“No images of the public will be used for any testing,” OPD said in a statement.
Concerns raised by activists, politicians and Amazon workers following the ACLU report remain unaddressed by either Amazon or the OPD. Congressional Black Caucus members Reps Keith Ellison and Emanuel Cleaver released an open letter to Bezos in May, asking: “What steps is Amazon taking to ensure that Rekognition is not facilitating systems that disproportionately impact people based on protected characteristics in potential violation of federal civil rights laws?”
Whether Amazon feels responsibility for providing tech that could be misused remains an open question, as concerns of police misconduct are parallel to concerns about the tech.