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An update now on a story we brought you a couple of weeks ago about facial recognition technology. NPR's Martin Kaste reported that American police have been reluctant to adopt, quote, "real-time systems," the kind that ID people as they walk down the street. Now Martin says it appears at least one police department is trying that out with the help of a very familiar tech company.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Believe it or not, that company is Amazon. It sells a video analytics tool called Rekognition. It's cloud-based. You upload video along with the faces that you want it to scan for. Anybody can use it, but recently the company started pitching it to local governments.
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RANJU DAS: City of Orlando is a launch partner of ours. It's a smart city. They have cameras all over the city.
KASTE: This is Amazon employee Ranju Das talking up the product's public safety uses at a recent conference.
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DAS: We analyze that video in real time, search against the collection of faces that they have. These could be their mayor if they want to know if the mayor of the city is in a place, they want to know if - persons of interest they want to track.
KASTE: That sounds like the real-time systems that police in China have been bragging about recently - networks of cameras that let them track where someone is or has been. American police have not had this ability yet as far as it's been documented, and the privacy laws here are not clear about whether the police would need a warrant to do this kind of scanning. In a written statement, Orlando Police called this a pilot program but would not take follow-up questions.
Later, after the web version of this story was published, they sent another statement saying real-time facial recognition have been tested on only eight cameras in the city and did not involve the identification of members of the general public. The department has not explained its future plans for the system.
MATT CAGLE: We're talking about a new technology that supercharges surveillance.
KASTE: Matt Cagle is with the ACLU, which first noticed Amazon's push to sell facial recognition to police. It's now asking Amazon to stop doing so. While there are other companies that sell facial recognition to law enforcement, he says Amazon is different.
CAGLE: Amazon is one of the largest technology companies and one of the largest cloud computing providers. So we find it really difficult to overstate Amazon's ability to influence whether facial recognition becomes widespread in the United States or not.
KASTE: In a written statement, Amazon says it, quote, "requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when using the service." The company also played down just how real time the facial recognition is in Orlando. But for the ACLU, the concern isn't so much about what these systems can do now. It's about what they could grow into. The cloud-based nature of Amazon's service makes it especially easy to expand and adapt facial recognition.
Deputy Jeff Talbot is a spokesman for the Washington County Sheriff's Office near Portland, Ore. Deputies there use Amazon to compare photos taken in the field to a database of mug shots.
JEFF TALBOT: They've created a little tool where you upload. It sends you your results, and you can continue on with your investigation.
KASTE: And this service is astonishingly cheap.
TALBOT: We pay literally a couple of dollars a month.
KASTE: That kind of automatic mug shot comparison used to require systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Facial recognition is now becoming just another digital commodity available to even the most cash-strapped police departments despite the fact that there has been very little public debate about what the rules should be for how police use it. Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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