Analysis | House lawmakers are raising concerns that a powerful facial recognition tool Amazon is marketing to local law enforcement agencies could be used to inappropriately surveil innocent Americans and reinforce racial profiling of black communities.

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House lawmakers are raising concerns that a powerful facial recognition tool Amazon is marketing to local law enforcement agencies could be used to inappropriately surveil innocent Americans and reinforce racial profiling of black communities.

In a pair of separate letters to Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos late last week, two House Democrats and the Congressional Black Caucus are seeking answers about Rekognition, the service the company is selling for an extremely low price to law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Orlando that allows police to scan footage of crowds for possible suspects in real time.

Reps. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., and Keith Ellison, D-Minn., want Bezos, who also owns The Washington Post, to turn over a full list of agencies that use Rekognition and provide assurances that the company is taking steps to root out the potential for bias in the software. They pointed to recent studies showing that facial recognition software consistently misidentified black people and women more often than white people and men.

Cleaver told me that it was up to companies such as Amazon “to hire diverse leadership to ensure that these artificial intelligence technologies do not adversely affect communities of color.”

“If industry leaders won’t step up with their own policy improvements,” Cleaver told me in an email, “make no mistake about it, Congress will do it for them.”

The Congressional Black Caucus argued that an “algorithmic bias” could drive law enforcement to unfairly target African Americans and that Rekognition could also be turned against immigrants and protesters. “Surveillance of perfectly legitimate and constitutionally protected activity will only further erode the public’s trust in law enforcement,” wrote Chairman Cedric L. Richmond, D-La. “We urge you to be thoughtful, deliberate, and assiduous as development of this technology advances.”

Rekognition appears to push the boundaries of how controversial facial recognition systems are used by law enforcement – but lawmakers may have a tough time regulating these systems, even as Republicans and Democrats alike say they are ripe for abuse.

Washington hasn’t come close to keeping pace with technological breakthroughs on facial recognition technology, says Alvaro Bedoya, director of the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown University Law Center, which published a sweeping study in 2016 examining the risks to privacy and civil rights posed by facial recognition systems. “Not any state nor Congress has passed a law that comprehensively regulates this technology,” Bedoya said.

There has also been little pressure from constituents. “Because major law enforcement agencies have used this in secret, the public hasn’t had a chance to say what it thinks about it,” Bedoya said. “The technology has moved much quicker than public awareness and, until recently, public opinion.”

Documents released by the American Civil Liberties Union last week kicked off a debate about Rekognition, at least among privacy experts and lawmakers.

My colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin sums up how the program works: “It can identify up to 100 people in a crowd, the documents said. The sheriff’s office of Washington County, Ore., built a database of 300,000 mugshots of suspected criminals that officers could have Rekognition scan against footage of potential suspects in real-time. The footage could come from police body cameras and public and private cameras.” On top of that, the services are cheap: The county apparently pays Amazon between $6 and $12 a month for the service.

Not even the FBI is using its facial recognition software to track people in real time, Bedoya notes. Rather, in the FBI’s system, officers can look for a suspect by feeding a photo obtained during an investigation into federal and state databases containing photos of hundreds of millions of people culled from mugshots, driver’s licenses, passports and other documents. The ACLU’s findings are the “clearest example yet that these dragnet, real-time face recognition systems are real,” Bedoya said.

Lawmakers have already shown an interest in setting rules about how agencies more broadly use facial recognition systems. During a heated hearing last March, Republicans and Democrats from the House Oversight Committee grilled Kimberly Del Greco, deputy assistant director of the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division, saying the bureau’s facial recognition system trampled on innocent Americans’ privacy. Some lawmakers proposed requiring the FBI to get a warrant before using facial recognition to identify a suspect, as law enforcement officers do when they need a wiretap.

But since Amazon is marketing Rekognition to local law enforcement, it would largely be up to states, cities and even individual police departments to set rules for how law enforcement agencies use it. Currently, few such rules exist. And getting consistent laws across the board would likely prove a challenge.

Still, Bedoya says there could be a parallel in how the Justice Department and some local law enforcement agencies took steps to contain the use of StingRay devices, which simulate a cell-tower to surreptitiously collect data from people’s phones. At the urging of Congress and advocacy groups, they set policies requiring warrants to use the devices. “It’s not unheard of,” he said. Cities or states could also bar the use of facial recognition in body cameras. And one way Congress could get involved would be to deny federal funding to local agencies that use facial recognition services that don’t meet certain standards.

Video: A look at how Amazon Facial Rekognition works and how it could be used. (Amazon Web Services)

Amazon defends the technology. Spokeswoman Nina Lindsey told Elizabeth that the technology could be used to help locate people who have been abducted or gone missing, and she noted that during the royal wedding this month, clients used Rekognition to identify wedding attendees.

“Amazon requires that customers comply with the law and be responsible when they use [Amazon Web Services],” she said. “. . .When we find that AWS services are being abused by a customer, we suspend that customer’s right to use our services.”