Amazon is asking the public to report abuses of Rekognition, the company's powerful facial recognition tool that it has aggressively pitched to US law enforcement agencies, in a simple web form that asks for their name, business email, company name, phone number, and a field with the prompt, "What would you like to report."
Some civil rights advocates noticed the website ahead of the company's annual shareholders meeting Wednesday, in which Amazon shareholders voted against proposals to prohibit the sale of facial recognition technology to the government, and to study the impact of government use of the product going forward. Also on Wednesday, the House Oversight Committee held a much-anticipated hearing on facial recognition, which aimed to examine the use of the technology by the government and commercial entities, and the need for oversight on how it is used on civilians.
"We’ve always had the ability for customers to report suspected misuse of our services. Earlier this year we added a specific reporting process for Rekognition," an Amazon spokesperson said in a statement, responding to questions from BuzzFeed News. "We also continue to 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." Amazon first introduced Rekognition in 2016.
“It is absurd that Amazon seriously believes the solution to preventing rights violations from its face surveillance technology is an online form for people to report secret surveillance they have no way of knowing about," said Matt Cagle, technology and civil liberties attorney at the ACLU of Northern California. "This yet again underscores the urgent need for Amazon to get out of the surveillance business. They simply do not know what they are doing."
In the US, there are no laws currently governing the use of facial recognition, which has been implemented by federal and local law enforcement agencies, airports, retailers, and schools. There is no regulatory framework putting limits on the tech’s law enforcement applications. No case law or constitutional precedent upholding police use of facial recognition without a warrant exists. Courts haven’t even decided whether facial recognition constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. Reports and studies of the technology’s inaccuracies and mistakes, meanwhile, are growing.
Amazon, for its part, has maintained that Rekognition has useful applications, such as finding missing children and preventing package theft. The company has also claimed it had “not received a single report of misuse by law enforcement” over the its Rekognition software, something this web form seemingly sets out to address.
Amazon's form appears to have gone up in early April, according to internet archive records. It was added on to the company's information page called "The Facts on Facial Recognition With Artificial Intelligence."
For Matthew Green, a Johns Hopkins University cryptographer, the way the form is set up, the company could potentially access the IP addresses of customers in order to reveal who is sending in reports. "This could have a chilling effect on people making submissions that implicate law enforcement," he told BuzzFeed News. "At the very least it might be nice to have this hosted on another company's service; of course, even that would potentially be vulnerable to subpoena."
Other options could have been used by the company, Green said, such as SecureDrop, the open-source whistleblower submission system used by many journalistic organizations. Green said SecureDrop would have been a "stronger replacement," though he also pointed out that this would require users to be familiar with Tor (a web browser meant for anonymous web surfing), which he said is "somewhat more advanced and probably isn't going to be easy for users to operate."
"Ironically, concerns about security might encourage whistleblowers to reach out to journalists instead of Amazon," Green said, "which probably isn't the company's preferred outcome." ●