How to Not Build a Panopticon

Police may not be ready for Amazon’s facial recognition system, but they are using its Ring doorbell cameras.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Christian Stahl/Unsplash, Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash and Amazon.

In 2017, Orlando’s police department signed up to be one of the first in the country to pilot Amazon’s new facial recognition software, Rekognition, which it offered to the agency for free. The partnership was largely unknown until May 2018, when the American Civil Liberties Union obtained records detailing how the company was pitching its facial recognition software to law enforcement around the country and was already working with at least two departments, Orlando and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon. The idea was that they would use Rekognition to help catch criminals and make better use of the hundreds of surveillance cameras already in the area.

On Thursday, Amazon’s pilot partnership with the Orlando Police Department ended, and according to city officials, it didn’t work.

“At this time, the city was not able to dedicate the resources to the pilot to enable us to make any noticeable progress toward completing the needed configuration and testing,” the City of Orlando Chief Administrative Office said in a memo to City Council, the Orlando Weekly reported. Rosa Akhtarkhavari, Orlando’s chief information officer, told the paper that the city’s technology infrastructure simply wasn’t advanced enough and didn’t have the bandwidth to support the artificial intelligence software on more than one camera at a time, and even then there were glitches. “We’ve never gotten to the point to test images,” she said. Amazon proposed to outfit the city with more advanced surveillance cameras for the pilot, since the cameras already installed downtown weren’t proving to be compatible with Rekognition, but the city reportedly declined.


This failure rather neatly illustrates a reality standing in the way of a public-private panopticon: extremely normal technical problems. If Amazon wants to market a surveillance product to local governments, it will have to deal with the fact that many municipal computer systems run outdated software, that police departments’ cameras aren’t all high-definition, and not all the equipment is neatly networked with an ultra-fast or even reliable internet connection.

Amazon appears to be having better luck looking to civilian customers to help it break into the police surveillance market. With Amazon’s Ring smart camera doorbell, for months the company has been partnering with local police departments to hand out free or discounted Ring systems to residents, which allows police to request and access footage directly from the smart doorbell cameras using Ring’s Neighbors app.* Police departments in cities as big as Dallas, Philadelphia, Birmingham, Phoenix, and Oklahoma City all have joined Ring’s police program, according to a new map from the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future, which tracks which cities and towns have inked police department deals with Amazon to use Ring. The map also lists smaller cities that have contracts, like Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Maywood, New Jersey. More cities may follow suit.


Police can use the Ring Neighbors app to review footage from feeds from specific locations where they have some kind of concern.* (Users have to opt in to share footage as part of the program.) Normally, people buy Ring as a security system to see who comes to their house without having to open the door, or to track stolen packages or break-ins when residents aren’t home. So it’s not surprising that security-minded customers would be open to sharing this data with police. But people who wouldn’t normally think to install surveillance cameras outside their home might warm up to the idea if it’s being encouraged by local law enforcement and Amazon is offering a discount.

“I was amazed at how many cameras were just in our neighborhood,” says John Dalles, an officer with the Winter Park Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Unit in Florida, in a video Amazon made about Ring’s work with local law enforcement. While many police departments are tapping into people’s existing systems, CNET reported last month that law enforcement in New Jersey, California, Indiana, and other states have offered discounts of up to $125 for residents to buy a Ring system. A typical Ring system can cost $99 to $500.


It makes sense that Amazon would find more success in bringing its street-level surveillance software to police with the help of its consumer-facing products, where users voluntarily collect data that police might find useful. Corporate surveillance and government surveillance almost always work hand in hand. The NSA programs revealed by Edward Snowden tapped U.S. tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Microsoft in order to conduct their dragnet data collection. Police departments across the country have long turned to local businesses to register their privately owned security cameras to give officers permission to review the footage. For the past three years, police in Washington, D.C., have even had a program that offers to pay residents and business owners to install security cameras.

With Amazon’s Ring partnerships, however, Ring appears to have done much of the promotional work. In the city of Hammond, Indiana, CNET reported that Amazon provided $18,750 for the city to subsidize getting Ring devices installed in residents’ homes, a figure that was matched by the city. When Fight for the Future complied its new map of cities that have partnered with Ring the team found, “the local departments all used the same template press release,” according to Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, which she speculates was likely provided to the various departments by Amazon. “These partnerships are the perfect example of how corporate surveillance and government surveillance are inextricably linked,” Greer said in an email. “A private individual can buy a surveillance camera from a private company and install it at their private residence, but the information that it collects will be transmitted to local police, with essentially no limitations on how they can use the massive trove of footage.”


It’s not clear if Ring footage is being used for anything beyond reviewing video of crimes happening on the street or at people’s homes, but if the footage is ever combined with Amazon’s face-scanning technology, it could be used to directly identify people too. The problem is that Amazon’s Rekognition doesn’t always work that well, particularly on people of color. An MIT study released earlier this year found that Rekognition misidentified darker-skinned women as men 31 percent of the time, yet made no mistakes for lighter-skinned men. In the field, that could lead to unwarranted questioning of individuals who did nothing wrong.

Beyond getting over the hurdle of many cities’ shoddy tech infrastructure by asking residents to donate their own bandwidth to help police increase their street-level surveillance systems, Amazon’s Ring program for police is a way for local departments to avoid the kinds of public conversations a police department might be pressured to have with its community about the technologies its officers procure. Amazon also gets new customers, who pay a monthly fee for the Ring service, as well as a tighter relationship with local police—who may eventually be persuaded to adapt more advanced technologies. It’s not only local police on Amazon’s radar. The company has also inked deals with the Department of Homeland Security to use its cloud services, which DHS uses to run various immigration and biometric databases that hold face records and finger prints. Amazon also reportedly pitched its face recognition software to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Amazon is often referred to as the Everything Store because of its vast retail offerings. But that moniker has never captured the actual kitchen sink that is Amazon: It makes award-winning movies and television shows. It runs the largest cloud service in the world. It’s a household brand of goods thanks to Amazon Basics. It runs a massive two-day shipping operation. Amazon is a drone-maker, an online ad company, and now increasingly, it’s also trying to be a surveillance company. Perhaps a better name for Amazon would be the See Everything Store.

Correction, July 22, 2019: This article originally misidentified Ring’s Neighbors app as Neighborhood. It also misstated that Ring’s app allows police to review the camera feeds. They can request footage from the feeds.

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