Posted by Guest on June 28, 2018 in Blog

By Blaise Malley

On May 24th, 2018, Orlando police Chief John Mina confirmed that the Orlando Police Department had installed three cameras equipped with Amazon’s facial recognition software known as Rekognition in downtown Orlando, in addition to five cameras that were already in place at the OPD headquarters. The technology claims to provide “detection and recognition of text in images, real-time face recognition across tens of millions of faces, and detection of up to 100 faces in challenging crowded photos.” Despite the advantages that Amazon claims Rekognition could give to law enforcement agencies when it comes to identifying “persons of interest”, there are a number of worrying issues to consider.

Beyond endangering fundamental civil liberties by indiscriminately recording public places, this ability is particularly concerning because it has the potential to be used in a discriminatory fashion; such as identifying protesters or those involved in other non-violent activities, or surveilling predominantly minority communities. The possibility of the widespread use of such software is especially alarming given the increasing distrust that is occurring between minority communities and the government. The current administration has continuously employed rhetoric and proposed policies that have harmed the interests of various minority groups. These include growing numbers of ICE raids against immigrants, the reported FBI targeting of Black Lives Matters activists, the increase in Countering VIolent Extremism (CVE) initiatives, the continuing of police brutality specifically targetingblack victims, and the President’s ban preventing citizens of a number of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

Considering the climate of current relations between the government and minority groups, it became imperative that local police forces did not commit actions that could jeopardize their connections with their communities, especially those that already feel at risk. The implementation of Rekognition threatens the privacy of these residents, and will therefore also threaten their civil liberties and could sour the relationship between local communities and their law enforcement agencies.

Recognizing this risk, AAI spearheaded the effort to send police Chief Mina a letter outlining the potential pitfalls of the system’s implementation. A coalition of local groups focusing on a wide range of issues, including ACLU Foundation of Florida, Arab American Community Center of Florida, Diáspora en Resistencia, Farmworker Association of Florida, Inc., FL Immigrant Coalition, Mi Familia Vota, NeJame Law, Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, Organize Florida, Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF), United Faculty of Florida at UCF, and Women's March Florida, signed onto the letter to urge the OPD to stop using Rekognition now that the pilot had expired and the department was debating whether or not to continue using the technology.

The letter acknowledged that the Orlando Police Department had done admirable work in fostering trust within its community, while also making clear that continuing to use Rekognition could undermine these efforts. AAI’s letter was first covered by the Orlando Sentinel, who published the letter in full in an article discussing the use of the technology, and letter mentioned in an article by NPR. As Orlando and perhaps other cities look into instituting Rekognition or similar technologies, it is imperative that groups like AAI and the ACLU keep up the fight for public safety and civil liberties.

Blaise Malley is a summer 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.