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Civil Liberties Groups Petition Amazon To Stop Selling Facial Recognition Product To Police

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Faith leader Rev. Paul Benz, center, and Shankar Narayan, ACLU, wait with volunteers delivering petitions to Amazon.

Amazon’s cloud based real time facial recognition product, called Rekognition, has come under fire from civil liberties groups. They’re petitioning the company to stop selling it to police departments and other government entities.  Some shareholders have are also signed a letter to the company expressing concern.

The company says Rekognition is a useful tool that can be used to find human traffickers or other criminals or even lost children.

But standing in front of Amazon headquarters in Seattle, Jasmin Samy with Council on American Islamic Relations Washington says communities like hers have reason to worry about how governments might use it.

“American Muslims are too often unfairly targets of suspicion and law enforcement activities a trend that has only accelerated under this current administration,” she said.

Stanley Shikuma, head of Seattle’s Japanese American Citizens League, says all you have to do is look back to 1942 when the government locked up more than 100 thousand Japanese Americans for the duration of World War II.

“The precursor to that was a large surveillance system starting in the 1930s.” he said.

Shikuma says by the time President Franklin Roosevelt issued the executive order authorizing internment, the government had already collected the names and addresses of Japanese Americans living on the West Coast.

Shikuma and Samy joined representatives of about a dozen organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union, in delivering boxes of petitions to Amazon's headquarters in Seattle asking that the Rekognition system not be sold for government use.

Shankar Narayan, with the ACLU, says there's a long history in the United States of over-surveillance of vulnerable communites, from the labor movement to Muslims to immigrants to homeless people.

"Face surveillance tools like Rekognition will likely be used against those same communities, but in ways that are harder to detect because communities won't even know that the technology is in use," Narayan said.

Amazon wouldn’t comment on the petitions. In a recent blog post, however the company said that any government that misused the product or violated the terms of service would have its contract cancelled.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.