Balancing Privacy Rights and Facial Recognition Technology for Police

Disruptive technologies present challenges for everyone — police administrators included. But such technologies also carry significant benefits not only for police, but for the citizens they are sworn to protect.

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Some technology companies have been famously resistant to helping law enforcement (see Apple vs. FBI). On the other hand, many technology companies have aggressively sought to provide police with cutting-edge technology that helps solve crimes and protect citizens.

One such company is Amazon. Jeff Bezos’ retail giant that is more than just a retail giant. Amazon is also a technology service provider, delivering everything from web hosting to facial recognition software.

It is that latter offering that has the company under pressure from two seemingly disparate groups: the ACLU and the company's shareholders.

Recently, the ACLU teamed up with about a dozen and a half major Silicon Valley investors to petition Amazon to drop its Rekognition facial recognition system and “exit the surveillance business,” according to

Amazon first began marketing Rekognition to law enforcement agencies back in 2016. The system — which Amazon says can “detect, analyze, and compare faces for a wide variety of user verification, people counting, and public safety use cases” — is in use in Florida and Oregon, with agencies from California and Arizona considering becoming customers.

The ACLU is primarily motivated by privacy concerns, especially with regard to individuals attending political protest rallies and other large-scale public gatherings (read: riots).

The shareholders are more interested in the potential for stock prices suffering from negative publicity around police use of the technology to electronically locate people.

Strange bedfellows, but okay, so be it.

“Amazon's product, Rekognition, has the power to identify people in real time, in photos of large groups of people, and in crowded events and public places,” the ACLU said in a statement accompanying its petition. “At a time when we're joining public protests at unprecedented levels, and discriminatory policing continues to terrorize communities of color, handing this surveillance technology over to the government threatens our civil rights and liberties.”

In a separate statement, the ACLU said, “Amazon’s size and power — and its nearly ubiquitous Amazon Web Services cloud system — make it easy for the company to offer its face surveillance software as a service for very little money, lowering the bar for even small-town police departments to track people going about their daily lives. App developers can also build easy-to-use face surveillance software for police using Rekognition.”

For its part, Amazon says that their facial recognition services allow law enforcement to easily integrate powerful image and video analysis into their investigative process.

In addition to uncovering illegal activities and locating fugitives, facial recognition software has the potential to find missing persons and identify “John Doe” decedents.

There is too much upside to in facial recognition technology for law enforcement for it to be ignored.

Here’s the problem. Facial recognition software, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and other emerging technologies are the toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube — the bell which cannot be un-rung.

Let’s say that Amazon’s investors successfully pressure the company to stop selling Rekognition to police. Within days, another provider will step in and grab the money that Amazon leaves on the table.

Nature hates a vacuum. A marketplace vacated by Amazon will draw the immediate attention of companies like SenseTime, D-ID, Cognitec, or countless others.

The solution is not to seek the elimination of new technology. The solution is to figure out reasonable and rational policies and procedures that strike a balance between public safety and personal privacy.

This is no easy feat, but it is not impossible.

Disruptive technologies present challenges for everyone — police administrators included. But such technologies also carry significant benefits not only for police, but for the citizens they are sworn to protect.

Sensible solutions to problems presented by everything from DNA to drones are achievable, as long as stakeholders with differing opinions and objectives are able to come together in conversation.

It’s time to figure out how law enforcement can best leverage facial recognition technology while also ensuring the privacy rights of innocent, law-abiding Americans.

Doug Wyllie has authored more than 1,000 articles and tactical tips aimed at ensuring that police officers are safer and more successful on the streets. Doug is a Western Publishing Association “Maggie Award” winner for Best Regularly Featured Digital Edition Column. He is a member of International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), an Associate Member of the California Peace Officers’ Association (CPOA), and a member of the Public Safety Writers Association (PSWA).

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