In China’s footsteps: Amazon and US schools normalize automatic facial recognition and constant surveillance

Posted on May 28, 2018 by Glyn Moody

Amazon has developed a powerful cloud-based facial recognition system called “Rekognition”, which has major implications for privacy. It is already being used by multiple US police forces to carry out surveillance and make arrests, the ACLU has learned.

Amazon claims that Rekognition offers real-time face matching across tens of millions of individuals held in a database, and can detect up to 100 faces in a single photo of a crowd. Rekognition can be used to analyze videos, and to track people even when their faces are not visible, or as they go in and out of the scene.

As a result of these disclosures, a coalition of organizations including the ACLU has sent a letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos demanding that the company stop providing its facial recognition tool to the government. The ACLU has also launched a petition that calls for the same.

Emails obtained through freedom of information requests submitted by the ACLU show that Amazon has worked with the city of Orlando, Florida, and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon to roll out Rekognition in those locations. In addition, law enforcement agencies in California, Arizona, and multiple domestic surveillance “fusion centers” have indicated interest in Rekognition, although it is not clear how many of these have gone on to deploy the system. Orlando has used Rekognition to search for people in footage drawn from the city’s video surveillance cameras. Washington County, meanwhile, has built a Rekognition-based mobile app that its deputies can use to run any image against the county’s database of 300,000 faces. The ACLU spells out some of the serious privacy issues raised by the documents it has obtained:

With Rekognition, a government can now build a system to automate the identification and tracking of anyone. If police body cameras, for example, were outfitted with facial recognition, devices intended for officer transparency and accountability would further transform into surveillance machines aimed at the public. With this technology, police would be able to determine who attends protests. [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] could seek to continuously monitor immigrants as they embark on new lives. Cities might routinely track their own residents, whether they have reason to suspect criminal activity or not. As with other surveillance technologies, these systems are certain to be disproportionately aimed at minority communities.

It’s not just US police forces that are turning to facial recognition systems for constant surveillance. As The Buffalo News reports, local schools are installing hundreds of video cameras that will be used to monitor students and visitors in order to provide “safety and security”. However, the system doesn’t seem particularly well-suited for that role:

It can’t detect metal, concealed weapons or explosives.

What it can do is alert officials if someone whose photo has been programmed into the system – a registered sex offender, wanted criminal, non-custodial parent, expelled student or disgruntled former employee – comes into range of one of the 300 high-resolution digital cameras.

That is, it will only be able to spot unwanted persons if their photo has been added to the system. However, it will be able to carry out highly-intrusive surveillance on another group – students:

if school officials load a student’s photo into the system, they can track where and when the student moved around in the school in the past 60 days.

They can see who the student talked to and where the student went during class hours.

Rabey, the Depew superintendent, said the Aegis system also could be applied to school discipline.

“If we had a student who committed some type of offense against the code of conduct, we can follow that student throughout the day to see maybe who they interacted with, where they were prior to the incident, where they went after the incident, so forensically we could also use the software in that capacity as well,” Rabey said.

Tracking a student throughout the day, and recording everyone he or she interacts with, seems like a rather extreme response to an offense against the school’s code of conduct. It’s particularly problematic because it turns blanket surveillance into a practice that students are expected to regard as totally routine. In other words, it normalizes constant high-tech monitoring by the authorities.

The situation in China shows where that leads. As Privacy News Online reported recently, the Chinese authorities have turned to advanced facial recognition to spot people on their wanted list that are hoping to escape notice by taking refuge in large crowds. But the rollout of these systems in the country is much wider than occasional high-profile incident, and has a long and disturbing history.

Total surveillance systems were pioneered in Tibet, and then perfected in Xinjiang. In the latter region, facial scans are used to track every movement of the local Uyghur population, with police intervention if they move outside narrowly-defined areas. Now technology honed in troubled regions is beginning to be deployed in major Chinese cities. For example, the Beijing metro will soon be using facial recognition as a matter of routine.

Given this constant expansion, it’s no surprise that surveillance is big business in China, with all the major Internet companies there involved in one way or another. As the Chinese government continues to install more such systems, prices will drop further, and the technology will steadily improve, as is already happening with Amazon’s Rekognition system. That will make its use around the world an increasingly attractive option for the authorities, with security invoked – as usual – as the reason for this massive assault on privacy. The danger is that everywhere will turn into China, where people are under surveillance all the time, with facial recognition used to monitor where they go, who they talk to – and few will even care. It’s already about to happen in US schools, and Amazon has its cloud-based technology ready and waiting for a massive roll-out everywhere else.

Featured image by Amazon.