Orlando scraps Amazon Rekognition pilot program

AWS demonstrates Amazon Rekognition Video in real time
Head of Emerging Technologies at Amazon Web Services in Asia Pacific Olivier Klein demonstrates deep learning-powered Amazon Rekognition Video at the AWS Sydney Summit.

Orlando City Council has called off any further trials of Amazon’s real-time facial recognition technology, called Rekognition, soon after the second phase of the pilot program ended last Thursday.

“At this time, the city was not able to dedicate the resources to the pilot to enable us to make any noticeable progress toward completing the needed configuration and testing,” read a memo from Orlando’s Chief Administrative Office to Orlando’s City Council.

The memo also said that the city has “no immediate plans regarding future pilots to explore this type of facial recognition technology”.

According to Orlando Weekly, the two-phase pilot program with the City Council started in December 2017. The first phase of the program lasted for six months to June 2018, before the second phase was started in October 2018. 

The trial saw the technology tap into four cameras at the police department’s headquarters, three in downtown, and one outside a community recreation center. 

However since starting the trial, the news report said the technology had been caught up with technical lags, bandwidth issues, and uncertainty over whether the face-scanning technology — that was designed to automatically identify and track suspects in real-time — actually worked. 

Orlando has been the only city in the United States to openly test Amazon’s real-time facial recognition technology.

The city council’s decision to cut ties with Amazon Rekognition has been applauded by advocacy groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). In a tweet, the organisation said, “We applaud Orlando for scrapping its use of Amazon’s face recognition technology. As experts say, it “doesn’t work and is a threat to our privacy and civil liberties.”

The EFF was one of more than three dozen civil rights organisations, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACL), that demanded for Amazon to stop providing government agencies with facial recognition technology in May last year. 

The company should “take Rekognition off the table for governments,” said the letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, signed by groups including the EFF, Human Rights Watch, and Data for Black Lives. “People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. Facial recognition in American communities threatens this freedom.”

Read more: Second-gen facial recognition tech aims to improve biometric security (TechRepublic)  

A similar call was made by Amazon employees, who wrote in a separate letter to Bezos asking him to cancel sales of Amazon’s Rekognition facial-recognition software to police, and more broadly to take an ethical stand on how its technology is used. 

Earlier this year, the tech giant chimed in on discussions around what regulatory guidelines needed to be set by lawmakers for the responsible use of facial recognition. 

It proposed five guidelines, including that facial recognition should always be used in accordance with law, including those that protect civil rights; human review is necessary when facial recognition is used in law enforcement to ensure it does not violate civil rights; and law enforcement agencies should be transparent in how they use facial recognition technology; among others. 

Amazon Web Services VP of Global Public Policy Michael Punke wrote in a blog post at the time that such legislation should be handled at the federal level.

“We understand why people want there to be oversight and guidelines put in place to make sure facial recognition technology cannot be used to discriminate,” he wrote. “We support the calls for an appropriate national legislative framework that protects individual civil rights and ensures that governments are transparent in their use of facial recognition technology.”

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