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Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy discusses new cloud services at AWS re:Invent 2017. (GeekWire Photo / Tom Krazit)

Concerned about the use of facial recognition technology to detect and identify Americans walking down the street, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Tuesday asking the company to place limits on how its Amazon Rekognition image-detection technology can be used by law enforcement.

The letter, which was signed by several other civil rights organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League, highlights work Amazon Web Services has done with police departments in Orlando, Fla., and suburban Portland’s Washington County, Ore. Amazon Rekognition is a image-recognition service first introduced by AWS in 2016 and enhanced to handle video recognition last year at AWS re:Invent 2017.

AWS has not exactly tried to hide its work with Washington County, publishing a case study last year describing how Rekognition is used to identify “persons of interest” in the county. In one example, Washington County used Rekognition to identify a shoplifter by uploading a photo of him from the store’s checkout line to a dataset of mugshots from people arrested in the county dating back to 2001, tracking down the suspect on Facebook after the department got four image results with greater than 80 percent similarity.

“Amazon Rekognition has become a powerful tool for identifying suspects for my agency,” wrote Chris Adzmia, senior information systems analyst for Washington County, in the case study.

That’s pretty much exactly what the ACLU is worried about, especially given the ease at which anyone can be potentially identified as a “suspect” in this day and age.

“Amazon also encourages the use of Rekognition to monitor ‘people of interest,’ raising the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments — such as undocumented immigrants or Black activists — will be targeted for Rekognition surveillance,” it wrote in the letter to Bezos.

AWS released the following statement, the latter third of which made my eyes roll:

Amazon requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use AWS services. When we find that AWS services are being abused by a customer, we suspend that customer’s right to use our services. Amazon Rekognition is a technology that helps automate recognizing people, objects, and activities in video and photos based on inputs provided by the customer. For example, if the customer provided images of a chair, Rekognition could help find other chair images in a library of photos uploaded by the customer. As a technology, Amazon Rekognition has many useful applications in the real world (e.g. various agencies have used Rekognition to find abducted people, amusement parks use Rekognition to find lost children, the Royal Wedding that just occurred this past weekend used Rekognition to identify wedding attendees, etc.). And, the utility of AI services like this will only increase as more companies start using advanced technologies like Amazon Rekognition. Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology. Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes? Like any of our AWS services, we require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition.

The letter comes as Google employees are raising a fuss about their employer’s use of machine-learning technology with military customers. Several Googlers resigned in protest of the company’s Project Maven contract with the Department of Defense, and thousands of others signed a petition asking Google to cancel the contract.

(Editor’s note: This post was updated with a statement from AWS.)

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