ASD PSP Update: What We Know About Law Enforcement Use of Facial Recognition Software with Body Cameras – Including Amazon’s “Rekognition”

An Interview with Tracy Rosenberg (Executive Director, Media Alliance & Co-coordinator, Oakland

By Lisa Rein & Tracy Rosenberg of the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project

New! We’ve just updated our Muckrock Templates for Filing Requests re: Surveillance Equipment.) Use these handy templates to request information on the existence of any and every known piece of surveillance equipment. Works for Police (city) AND Sheriff (county).

Tracy Rosenberg & Lisa Rein will be discussing the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project, its templates, latest results from Sacramento & many other cities in California at this month’s Raw Thought Salon on March 8th – from 7-9pm.

Then stay from 9pm-2am to dance and hang out in artist Grumpy Green’s super special Psychedelic Chill Room (an immersive art installation). DJs include: Melotronix, Tha Spyryt, Ailz, & Cain MacWitish – with visuals by Projekt Seahorse – all at our March 8th Raw Thought at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco! TICKETS

Facial recognition software allows cops to feed in images of people and look them up in real time. For instance at a protest or any kind of public gathering. One of the new planned technical innovations is to put the software onto the body cameras many police now carry, turning cops into walking facial recognition programs.

Tracy Rosenberg holds up a sign at the T-Mobile/Sprint merger protest in Fresno, California, on January 15, 2019.

Lisa Rein: Hi Tracy! Thanks for helping me give folks an update about what we know now about facial recognition.

Tracy Rosenberg: No problem.

LR: So, you were telling me that, currently, to your knowledge, no city has yet to put body cameras with facial rec out on “the street?”

TR: That’s right. So far, it’s just an idea being talked about and explored. As with much of law enforcement use of facial recognition software, it is isolated and spotty, but we are seeing more and more. The threat is very real.

For body cameras carrying the software, there is no police department yet doing it. However, Axon-Taser, which dominates the police body camera market after acquiring their primary competitor VieVu last year, says they are exploring and proactively put in place a new corporate ethics board in the hopes of stemming the expected public uproar.

And when SF-based Assembly member Phil Ting tried to include a ban on facial recognition software being attached to police body cameras in his legislation (AB748) to make body camera videos available as public records, law enforcement fought very hard and was eventually able to force the removal of that clause from what eventually became law. That was virtually unreported by the press in their coverage of the law and it was a big deal.

The most prominent facial recognition software producer, of course, is Amazon with their “Rekognition” product, which they have been shopping around to municipal police departments and to ICE. A public records act request by the ACLU revealed that two police departments were takers, the Orlando PD and the Washington County Sheriffs Department in Oregon.

Both are engaged in “pilot projects” (as is also the case in Alameda which we’ll discuss below).

Orlando paused their pilot program briefly in response to public scrutiny, but has now started it up again.

LR: What other implementations are on the horizon in the facial recognition space?

TR: Well, Governor Cuomo’s plans to use facial recognition on the New York bridges is now in the pilot/testing phase (which is duplicitous as the words “pilot” and “test” are often used to start something up without policy. If it’s being used, then its being used.)

Technically, this is a transit use, not a law enforcement use, as the pilot is being executed by the MTA, but given that the description is “the system is attempting to match acquired images against a database of wanted criminals, parole violators, and suspects” this clearly seems to be a case of outsourced law enforcement.

The public does not even know what facial recognition system is being used, so this is an example of lack of transparency in action. In other words, it could very well be Amazon Rekognition, but we’ll never know until someone files a records request and gets an answer.

LR: What else?

TR: The other spotty or “test” use is at airports. Here again, we get into both the use of “tests” or “pilot programs” and the “border rule” which suspends many basic civil rights in the proximity of international borders, to evade basic transparency protocols that the government otherwise might be more inclined to follow.

The program is in use in 15 airports so far, including Dulles, Atlanta-Hartsfield, O’Hare, Boston, JFK and Bush International in Houston with over 3 million faces already collected by Customs and Border Patrol and TSA.

LR: Oh my. There’s more?

TR: Yes. Delta just installed the first “biometric terminal” at Atlanta’s airport, which of course is permanent, not a test.

Plans for domestic flights are already underway, starting with TSA’s Pre-Check program which has already collected biometrics on a voluntary basis by travelers desperate to avoid lengthy security lines.

LR: Okay. Okay. No more! (Just kidding.) 🙂

It’s ok! I can take it!

Anything else?

TR: Just one more. There’s a new one we found out about in Alameda County last year with Alameda County sheriff Gregory Ahern using a Gemalto facial recognition system to vet people visiting inmates at Santa Rita Jail, the county’s large jail in Dublin.

We don’t know much about it yet, although a records request is in progress. The information came out at the Urban Shield exposition in 2017 when an overeager Gemalto salesperson told a community observer about the program.

All we know now is that a pilot program is now in effect. Since Alameda County has no transparency ordinance in effect, nothing is known yet about:

1) where the biometric data is stored

2) how long it is kept, and

3) if it is shared with other law enforcement agencies.

LR: Well wow! You have given us all a lot of homework to read up on this week.

As always, as is the goal of the Aaron Swartz Day Police Surveillance Project, we will all able to spend our time much more efficiently now, thanks to this awesome round up of links you have taken the time to share with us.

Thanks so much Tracy! <3


1. If Facial Recognition Comes to Body Cameras, How Will Government Respond? – But will cities adopt new policies in the face of controversy over the potential use of the technology in police body worn cameras? – May 1, 2018, by Dawn Kawamoto for Government Technology.

2. Amazon is selling facial recognition to law enforcement — for a fistful of dollars – May 22, 2018, By Elizabeth Dwoskin for the Washington Post

3. City of Orlando launches second test of Amazon’s facial recognition software, Oct 18, 2018, By Joey Roulette for Orlando Weekly.

4.Facial-recognition scanners at U.S. airports raise privacy concerns – Civil libertarians say the technology is being rushed into use before it has been fully vetted, September 24, 2018, by Lori Aratani for The Washington Post. (Link is for the Denver Post’s reprinting of the story.)

5. First US Face Recognition Terminal Opens at Atlanta Airport – December 5, 2018, by Bryan Lynn for VOA Learning English

6. Get ready for a lot more facial recognition at the airport – The TSA knows our phones have made us more comfortable with biometric tech. October 16, 2018, By Rob Verger for Popular Science.

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