Orlando police streaming surveillance video to Amazon for facial recognition test

Police using 8 city-owned cameras

ORLANDO, Fla. – The City of Orlando said in December 2017, it signed a "proof of concept agreement with Amazon" to begin a pilot program, testing Amazon's "Rekognition" facial recognition software through Amazon Web Services.

Orlando Police Department officials stress that it's just a test and the technology is not being used for investigative purposes.

Last month, at the Amazon Web Services Summit in Korea, Amazon's GM of Rekognition Services, Ranju Das, revealed that Orlando is a "partner." 

"It's a smart city, they have cameras all over the city, the authorized cameras are then streaming the data to Kinesis' video stream," Das said. "We are a subscriber to this stream, we analyze the video in real time, search against the collection of faces that they have, these could their mayor, they want to know if the mayor of the city is in a place, they want to know if persons of interest they want to track. As we find them we send the responses through Kinesis' stream, that could then be used to create an SMS notification and sent to pager or law enforcement agent."

Orlando Police spokesperson Sgt. Eduardo Bernal confirmed it is partnering with Amazon for a pilot.

"Access for Amazon for this pilot is extremely restricted and limited to only eight city-owned cameras only - three city-owned IRIS cameras and five city-owned facility security cameras," Bernal said. "The city has only provided facial imagining for a handful of Orlando police officers who volunteered and agreed to participate in the test pilot. At this time in the pilot, we have no data that supports or does not support that the Rekognition technology even works. This is an ongoing pilot and test and very early on in this process."

Amazon Web Services contains and streams countless hours of video of content and could compare faces analyzed in streaming videos with those in its videos. Streaming sources could include surveillance cameras and even web-enabled body cameras.

An Amazon executive on Amazon's Web Services page explained how it works.

"So with Amazon Rekognition, it lets you pass real time videos to us using our APIS or SDK we provided, and we'll detect all sorts of things in the video: objects, face and scenes, like a package being arrived," the executive said. "You'll also see the service will continue to get better every month just because of the sheer amount of video content we have internally as well as publicly available data sets."

The American Civil Liberties Union said it is highly concerned with "false positives" and urged Amazon to get out of the surveillance business. 

"As advertised, Rekognition is a powerful surveillance system readily available to violate rights and target communities of color," an ACLU-led coalition said in a letter on Tuesday to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, according to CBS News. "Amazon must act swiftly to stand up for civil rights and civil liberties, including those of its own customers, and take Rekognition off the table for governments."

Bernal acknowledged the concern.

"The City of Orlando is excited to work with Amazon to pilot the latest in public safety software through a unique, first-of-its-kind public-private partnership," Bernal said. "Through the pilot, Orlando will utilize Amazon's Rekognition Video and Amazon Kinesis Video Streams technology in a way that will use existing city resources to provide real-time detection and notification of persons of interests, further increasing public safety, and operational efficiency opportunities for the City of Orlando and other cities across the nation. The Orlando Police Department is not using the technology in an investigative capacity or in any public spaces at this time. The purpose of a pilot program such as this is to address any concerns that arise as the new technology is tested. Any use of the system will be in accordance with current and applicable law. We are always looking for new solutions to further our ability to keep the residents and visitors of Orlando safe."

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for News 6 and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting.