“The City of Orlando is always looking for new solutions to further our ability to keep our residents and visitors safe,” the city of Orlando and the Orlando Police Department said in a joint statement Monday. “Partnering with innovative companies to test new technology — while also ensuring we uphold privacy laws and in no way violate the rights of others — is critical to us as we work to further keep our community safe.”
The existence of the pilot program was first revealed last month, when the American Civil Liberties Union published documents detailing Amazon’s sale of powerful facial-recognition tools to several law enforcement agencies, including in Orlando and Washington County, Ore. The ACLU’s investigation sparked a public backlash, with a coalition of civil rights groups arguing that such tools will be used to disproportionately target vulnerable minority communities.
On Monday, the ACLU of Florida called on the Orlando City Council to renounce the use of facial-recognition technology as a law enforcement tool. In response, Orlando said the pilot program had expired last week. Orlando officials said no decision has been made on whether to continue the pilot.
A spokesman for Amazon Web Services, its cloud business, said, “That this engagement ended was expected and is not news.” (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Matt Cagle, a technology and civil-liberties attorney at the ACLU of California who co-authored the investigative report on Amazon, said people in Orlando and across the country have made it clear that they don’t want face surveillance technology used in their communities. “While the city of Orlando is taking the right step by not renewing its contract for Amazon’s face surveillance technology, Orlando must listen to its community members and publicly commit to not using the dangerous technology — now or in the future,” he said.
The AWS spokesman pointed to a company blog post published earlier this month by Matt Wood, the general manager of artificial intelligence at AWS. In the blog, Wood said that Rekognition’s image and video analysis capablities benefit society and organizations, in an easy-to-use and low cost way. “AWS takes its responsibilities seriously," Wood wrote. "But we believe it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future.”
Highlighting the reservations people have with the normalization of biometric surveillance in American life, Brian Brackeen, the chief executive of the facial-recognition technology company Kairos, said Monday that he would not sell his tools to law enforcement agencies and neither should anyone else. Brackeen, who is black, said in an essay on TechCrunch that facial-recognition technology contains biases against people of color and can be used to dehumanize entire populations.
“In a social climate wracked with protests and angst around disproportionate prison populations and police misconduct, engaging software that is clearly not ready for civil use in law enforcement activities does not serve citizens, and will only lead to further unrest,” he wrote. “Whether or not you believe government surveillance is okay, using commercial facial recognition in law enforcement is irresponsible and dangerous.”
Orlando’s announcement arrives as employees at Google, Microsoft and Amazon have protested their companies' tech partnerships with government agencies. Last week, workers at Amazon began circulating an internal email calling on Bezos to cut the company’s business ties with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and to end the sale of facial-recognition tech to law enforcement agencies. “Our company should not be in the surveillance business; we should not be in the policing business; we should not be in the business of supporting those who monitor and oppress marginalized populations,” the email stated.
Similar efforts have already prompted policy changes at Google. After a slew of resignations and outcry over an artificial-intelligence contract with the Pentagon, officials at the company said the deal would not be renewed and Google will bar the development of AI that can be used in weapons. Microsoft’s chief executive was also pressured to answer internal criticism over the company’s contract with ICE. After employees there called for the end of the $20 million contract, CEO Satya Nadella tried to reassure workers at Microsoft that the company’s business with ICE was unrelated to the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border.