In its research, the ACLU found that two jurisdictions already use the product: the city of Orlando, Florida, and the Sheriff’s Office in Washington County, Oregon:
Washington County has since built a database of at least 300,000 mugshot photos to use in coordination with Rekognition. It also built a mobile app for its deputies to quickly scan for a match against the county’s database by submitting images obtained from surveillance or other sources … In what Orlando’s police chief praises as a “first-of-its-kind public-private partnership,” Amazon promised free consulting services to build a Rekognition “proof of concept” for the city. Rekognition face surveillance is now operating across Orlando in real-time, according to Amazon, allowing the company to search for “people of interest” as footage rolls in from “cameras all over the city.”
As alarming as those facts on the ground may be, I was more struck by what preceded them, or rather, by what failed to precede them: the public’s approval.
Says the ACLU:
Because of Rekognition’s capacity for abuse, we asked Washington County and Orlando for any records showing that their communities had been provided an opportunity to discuss the service before its acquisition. We also asked them about rules governing how the powerful surveillance system could be used and ensuring rights would be protected.
Neither locality identified such records. In fact, Washington County began using Rekognition even as employees raised questions internally. In one email, a Washington County employee expressed the concern that the “ACLU might consider this the government getting in bed with big data.” That employee’s prediction was correct.
The jurisdictions didn’t just acquire powerful new surveillance technology that undermines privacy—they did so without meaningfully seeking the permission of residents.
That ought to spark outrage, recalls, and terminations—but it is not surprising. All over the United States, law-enforcement agencies quietly adopt technology that would spark intense debate if they first asked permission. They treat the public they are meant to serve as if its views don’t matter.
Police can force you to use your fingerprint to unlock your phone.
No one asked the people of Compton, California if they wanted a fixed-wing aircraft to fly over their city and capture constant hi-res video of everything that happened. “This system was kind of kept confidential from everybody,” one sergeant later admitted. “A lot of people do have a problem with the eye in the sky, the Big Brother, so to mitigate those kinds of complaints we basically kept it pretty hush hush.”
The LAPD acquired surveillance drones without asking Angelenos for permission. Countless communities quietly began photographing license plates. As of March 2018, the ACLU had identified 73 agencies in 25 states and the District of Columbia that own stingray devices, used for tracking mobile phones, and reported that “many agencies continue to shroud their purchase and use of stingrays in secrecy.”