Orlando police plan to extend test of Amazon facial-recognition software

By Ryan Gillespie
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Orlando Police Department plans to continue its test of Amazon’s facial recognition software, despite outcry from civil rights groups concerned that the technology could be abused.

A memo informed Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and the city council of the decision Friday, explaining more time was needed to make a “thoughtful, precise and comprehensive recommendation” to Dyer on whether or not the city should eventually purchase the technology.

The free pilot used the software on eight city cameras — including five within the Orlando police headquarters and three more downtown. The initial “proof of concept” expired last month and the city plans to sit down with Amazon to put together the parameters of the latest test but said it will operate similarly to the pilot.

“When we were approached we saw the value in how we can use it to get some really violent criminals off the street,” OPD Deputy Chief Mark Canty said.

The high-tech system, formally called “Rekognition,” is touted as able to pick a person out of a crowd and track their movements in real time. Orlando police officials have said such software could be used in finding murder suspects or stopping violent attacks before they happen.

But it’s not being used for investigative purposes during the pilot, the memo states.

During the initial test, city and police officials have said they only uploaded photos of seven police officers who volunteered to participate, including Canty. That will continue, officials confirmed Monday.

More time will allow the city to learn if the software works with the three types of cameras Orlando uses, and also how accurate and reliable it is. They’ve experimented with officers wearing hats as well as different facial hair, Orlando Chief Information Officer Rosa Akhtarkhavari said.

When Rekognition is activated, the footage flows from the city’s data center. If the camera recognizes a person who moves into its reach, the software is supposed to trigger an alert to authorities.

Akhtarkhavari said Amazon’s sytem receives footage from the city when Rekognition is activated, but it cannot retain the footage.

“It just goes in and gets inspected and moves away,” Akhtarkhavari said. “[Amazon] gets the stream, but they do not retain the stream.”

The system isn’t always activated, and only is when officials are running tests, she said.

Use of the program has been criticized by the American Civil Liberties Union, who feared the system can be used to violate civil liberties and civil rights to be used to target immigrants and political activists.

Last month the ACLU and other local groups including the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association, the Farmworker Association of Florida and the United Faculty of Florida at UCF sent a letter to police Chief John Mina urging the department to stop its test.

“The software has the potential of being used for discriminatory immigration enforcement, monitoring individuals who attend protests and engage in other non-violent activities, or disproportionately surveilling minority communities and residents who have committed no crimes,” the ACLU letter dated June 21 reads.

Canty said the department has been aware of concerns of the public, and vowed OPD would be responsible when using the software.

“We absolutely listen to the public because I think, particularly for police, we have to have an excellent relationship with the public,” Canty said. “When we take on a project like this, we know it’s going to be controversial…If it works we’re going to set parameters in place where it’s not going to be abused. That’s the time where we would have maybe some public input in our policies and listen to their concerns.”

©2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)

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