Among all the things that Amazon sells, one product stood out this week: Rekognition, its little-known facial recognition system.
According to government information obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), police in Orlando, Florida and Oregon’s Washington County both became clients last year, using the technology to identify suspects in public in real time.
Civil rights groups were not happy. Dozens signed a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, calling Rekognition “a grave threat to communities, including people of color and immigrants,” and demanding that the company stop supporting government surveillance efforts.
The concerns reflect a long-standing US debate about privacy versus law enforcement -- one that’s largely subdued in China, where facial recognition is already being used from catching jaywalkers and bad drivers to patrolling busy train stations.
Just this week, police in China reportedly arrested another fugitive at a pop concert attended by thousands of people -- at least the third case in two months. On the popular microblog Weibo, the reactions ranged largely from amusement to approval.
One person wrote, “Technology is making China safer! I was speaking with an American, who said China is much safer than the US now.”
Another person said, “I laughed at the news headline for five minutes this morning.”
Facial recognition isn’t always welcomed in China. But when it was criticized, most of the time it was because the technology didn’t work well enough -- rather than because people found it creepy.
Take the recent case of Didi Chuxing. The ride-hailing company revamped its carpooling services last week, after a driver allegedly raped and killed a passenger. Now drivers are required to scan their faces with the Didi app before taking an order -- and passengers need to do the same to get a ride.
The safety measure was designed to prevent account theft. But many users were annoyed -- not out of privacy concerns -- but because Didi’s technology failed to recognize their faces.
“Didi Chuxing, are you serious? Scanned my face for a thousand times and still couldn’t get myself verified. And an appeal takes 7 days?” wrote one frustrated user.
Another, who appears to be a driver, said, “Opened my mouth and blinked my eyes for half a day trying to take an order. People are probably going to avoid me because I looked like an idiot.”
When it does work though, facial recognition is seen in China as a pioneering solution to a wide range of problems. The Ministry of Transport itself said the technology can help ride services protect passengers. Authorities said they found a missing man after an algorithm matched his face with public records. And a high school is reportedly using AI cameras to monitor if students are paying attention in class.
In the US, facial recognition is viewed with more skepticism, especially when it involves tech titans like Amazon. Their technological prowess, combined with their sheer size and global reach, prompts fears of potential misuse.
Amazon says it will suspend services to customers who violate the law, and adds that “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology.”
It’s a common refrain from tech giants. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has suggested that regulations could hamper American innovation.
“I feel there's a balance that's extremely important to strike here, where you obtain special consent for sensitive features like face recognition,” he said in Congress last month. “But we still need to make it so that American companies can innovate in those areas, or else we're going to fall behind Chinese competitors and others around the world who have different regimes for different new features like that.”
In China, facial recognition is growing -- as is the mass surveillance system it supports. Like it or not, the government is building a network of street cameras to monitor its citizens -- with the goal of covering the entire country by 2020.
News about Rekognition drew scant response on Weibo. But among the few people who commented, one had this to say: “Any Chinese companies daring to withhold technology from the government is going to be kicked out.”