“The face is familiar”: Amazon’s Rekognition software…boon or bane?

“The face is familiar”: Amazon’s Rekognition software…boon or bane?

Remember back when Amazon was an internet bookstore?

Things have certainly changed!

Readers of this blog are no doubt aware of many, many things that Amazon does now that have little to do with that original mission. That’s not just selling things: it’s making TV shows, providing web services, streaming games…so much!

Even so, I’m guessing a lot of you are not aware of


What does it do?

It’s software that recognizes stuff.

That seems inevitable to me.

It’s really necessary for many artificial intelligence-based applications which will change our lives.

Clearly, self-driving cars need to be able to determine what objects they are “seeing”.

It will be even more important when we are wearing what I call “auggies” (VAM…virtuall/augmented/mixed/merged reality “glasses”). If you are in Virtual Reality, you can’t see what’s going on around you (which you can do when you using Augmented Reality). So, you want software that can recognize a police car or somebody giving away free samples. 😉

This goes back to when Amazon introduced the Fire Phone (I was one of the few who had one). When tech writers thought that the Fire Phone had a chance to succeed, they touted the “Firefly” feature, which in part was object recognition:

CNET article: “Firefly is the Amazon Fire Phone’s Secret Weapon” by Nick Statt (June 18, 2014)

It wasn’t enough to save the Fire Phone, which I felt was introduced as too much of a “luxury” model…Amazon has done better with lower-priced items, when there are clearcut, pre-established competitors.

You would think that Amazon improving a basic function like object recognition would be welcomed by everybody. If we agree that it is something that our technology is going to have to do, don’t we want it to do it as well as it can?

Well, there was recently an

open letter to Amazon Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos

signed by many organizations (notably, different ACLU…American Civil Liberties Union…groups).

It “demands” that Amazon stop selling Rekognition to government entities.

You see, Rekognition is already being used by groups such as the Orlando Police Department.

It can do facial recognition…look at video, and identify who is in it.

It can also do person tracking…identify where an individual goes as they pass from camera to camera.

This is not, by the way, an unintended consequence for Amazon…it’s part of what they advertise that it can do.

Here’s the question:

Let’s say you are walking down the street in your hometown. Is it wrong for people on the street to recognize you? Would it be wrong for a human police officer to recognize you? If those two are okay, what makes it wrong for software to recognize you?

This, by the way, is just the beginning. Rekognition can also identify expressions, for one thing.

Now, I love a free app from Microsoft called

Seeing AI

I’ve had a lot of fun with it. It’s designed for people with visual challenges, although it also works for people with autism, since it can (like Rekognition) identify some emotions (and how old people are, pretty accurately).

Amazon is going to pioneer, so Amazon is going to face these sorts of challenges. As another example, Alexa can now (well, it’s rolling out) identify different voices from different people…and it does it automatically, rather than training a voice profile, which was the previous situation.

Update: I probably should have included a link to my review

The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? (at AmazonSmile: benefit a non-profit of your choice by shopping*)

by David Brin. The 1999 book is still completely relevant, and especially applicable here. My review (from about five years ago):

Review: The Transparent Society

What do you think? Did you know Amazon was selling this software? Do you have a problem with it being used to identify people in public places? What if Amazon software predicted that someone might commit violence (a la Minority Report) based on their expressions and movements? Feel free to tell me and my readers what you think by commenting on this post.

Join thousands of readers and try the free ILMK magazine at Flipboard!

All aboard The Measured Circle’s Geek Time Trip at The History Project!

* I am linking to the same thing at the regular Amazon site, and at AmazonSmile. When you shop at AmazonSmile, half a percent of your purchase price on eligible items goes to a non-profit you choose. It will feel just like shopping at Amazon: you’ll be using your same account. The one thing for you that is different is that you pick a non-profit the first time you go (which you can change whenever you want)…and the good feeling you’ll get. :) Shop ’til you help! :) 

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog. To support this or other blogs/organizations, buy  Amazon Gift Cards from a link on the site, then use those to buy your items. There will be no cost to you, and a benefit to them.

12 Responses to ““The face is familiar”: Amazon’s Rekognition software…boon or bane?”

  1. Edward Boyhan Says:

    No, I don’t have a problem with it. Almost all technological advances have both beneficial and not so beneficial use cases.

    Amazon is not the only company that makes facial recognition software, and, I suspect, theirs is not even the best.

    My guess is that there are quite a few organizations providing facial recognition S/W to governmental entities. I think the letter was sent by the ACLU (and others) not so much because of the realities of Amazon’s facial recognition, but by targeting Amazon they get (have gotten) a lot of free publicity.

    Perhaps they should think about the UK where there are cameras on just about every street corner, and it would not surprise me if the British NSA equivalent (GCHQ) isn’t trolling through the imagery.

    We live in a world in which I fear personal privacy is a myth. You won’t be able to put the genie back in the bottle. I’ve thought a bit about how to deal with this — I don’t have any good answers.

    One idea put forward by a prominent tech columnist is to make “free” internet services illegal — actually big tech companies can’t offer their services for access to your information — instead, you have to pay real money for everything you use. An analysis was done showing that Facebook’s customer base might contract to 10%, but even with a modest monthly fee similar to Netflix’s, their revenue & net income would be greater than what it is now.

    Never gonna happen 😉

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Edward!

      I’ll recommend David Brin’s The Transparent Society for a discussion of options…I updated the post to include a link to it.

      As to making “free for information” services illegal…that would greatly increase the digital divide, and my guess is that columnist (I don’t know who it is) isn’t living paycheck to paycheck. People who don’t have a lot of money still benefit from the internet, and I don’t see why prohibiting them from making a choice to “sell” their information in exchange for access makes sense. To me, that would be like some other instances of criminalizing commercial activities…they disproportionately affect those with fewer means.

      • Edward Boyhan Says:

        As today is GDPR day, I thought I’d make a couple more observations. Your point about the digital divide is well taken. Although I do think there are two parts to that: one is the fact that rural areas are underserved — not necessarily because the potential customers are less well off, but rather it doesn’t make economic sense for providers to provide service in thinly populated areas. The other of course is income-derived — I see that as part of the larger income gap discussion.

        In the EU today various public interest groups have already filed suit against Facebook and Google because their opt-in policies under GDPR are overly broad. Given those companies revised privacy policies, the suits have reasonable chances of success. In the EU at least the very notion of advertiser-funded services is under attack. At the very least the whole concept of micro-targeting of ads might not survive in the EU. This will probably lower the revenues that ads can command.

        For my own part, if I have to have ads, I’d prefer they be targeted at my interests (rather than say the latest lipstick colors :😉). I find it somewhat humorous to notice ads embedded in articles I’m reading that reflect my recent Amazon browsing histories 😎. I also feel that we have become increasingly insensitive to ads of any kind. Just as I go to the bathroom or kitchen during TV ads, I’ve trained myself to completely ignore the left and right bands on web pages. I’ve got to wonder just how valuable those ads really are.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Edward!

        One of the key things about advertising is that it doesn’t have to work for everybody, especially if it is low cost. Let’s say it costs you a thousand dollars to do an ad. The ad is for a product that will be a net profit of $10. They don’t send it to a hundred people hoping that all of them buy it. They send it to a million people…and they only need 100 out of the million to buy it to break even…a teeny tiny percentage.

        I also prefer targeted advertising…and I don’t know if it will matter to people that no human being will be aware of my interests if this is all done by AI and algorithms.

        One thing that the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) has made very clear is the global nature of commerce. As you point out it’s a European Union thing…but we in the USA are hearing about it from everybody! 😉 It’s too hard to figure out who should see it and who shouldn’t…

  2. Lady Galaxy Says:

    You say, “It can also do person tracking…identify where an individual goes as they pass from camera to camera.” If a person started following me every place I go, I would start to feel uncomfortable and fear I was being stalked, and in most places, stalking can be considered a criminal activity.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Lady!

      Two things:

      The first is about stalking. It generally requires malicious intent, and the victim needs to be made aware of it by the stalker (some kind of stated threat). That would be very hard to prove in the case of a police department.


      Now, as to being tracked (and this doesn’t exactly match what you are saying), I would say this. Suppose someone walks the same path going to work every day. A store owner can see them through the window. They eventually recognize and can predict that the person will appear at a certain time (typically), and even has a nickname for them. That’s presumably okay with most people. What if it was a cop who is parked in the same place every day and does the same thing (assuming the nickname is not pejorative…maybe “Red Shoes”)?

      If software just does it better, I see that as only a matter of degree…quantitative, not qualitative. Not liking it sometimes feels to me like prejudice against “silicon citizens”. 😉

      I think there could also be a big advantage in this, if AI decides when to alert humans (which is one way a lot of these things work) based on behavior, it can be less likely to alert based on irrelevant characteristics, such as race, age, dress, and gender. That would absolutely depend on how the AI is designed and taught/learns, and that can be flawed…but I find it unlikely that it would be as flawed as humans are in exhibiting bias.

  3. Phink Says:

    So much to say on this so I have to try to be pithy. Of course I will fail.

    We might as well forget privacy. Privacy is gone and probably forever. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. If you are a Police officer then you better assume you are being recorded every minute you are interacting with someone. If you are stopped by the Police then you are almost certainly being recorded as well both by a car camera and a body camera in many instances. If you are walking down the street then I hope you are not expecting privacy because there is a good chance you are being recorded, possibly even watched live.

    Everybody it seems has a video recorder in their pocket and they are not afraid to use it. Not to mention security cameras, government cameras, etc.

    I remember hearing many years ago that casino’s were using facial recognition software. I also heard way back when that the Secret Service used such software at political rally’s as well. It was only natural it would expand to almost every business.

    Technology is always a two edged sword. The internet has certainly changed our lives for the better and for the worse. Both are true but I think just about everyone but my elderly aunt would agree the good the internet has brought us far outweighs the bad. My aunt however believes computers are the spawn of Satan and I’m not exaggerating.

    The same with cell phones. They have brought so much good into the world and so much bad. Imagine how many people have been saved simply by dialing 911 in seconds rather than minutes. I mean if there is a bad car accident on a back road then the car behind them, who saw it instantly, can notify 911 within seconds for help. Before cell phones he’d have to drive as fast as he could to the nearest home, bang on the door hollering “I need to use your phone. There’s been an accident.” Then, realize nobody is home, jump back in his vehicle, drive to the next house and try again all while the poor sap who ran off the road is clinging to life.

    The bad. People are addicted to their little machines. Phone addiction is a real thing. I’ve been in restaurants too many times when a table of 4 will have 4 cell phones out and not even talking to each other. I rarely take my phone into eating establishments. It stays in the car.

    So, I welcome facial recognition software. There are so many positive things it can do such as help find criminals, terrorist, prove people guilty or innocent by their recorded movements and possibly alert 911 in certain situations. I mean if privacy is already gone, and believe me it is, then why not I say? If we still had an expectation of privacy I might feel differently but like I said privacy is something quaint that we used to have.

    • Bufo Calvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Phink!

      David Brin addressed exactly the point you are making, and I added that reference into the article. 🙂

      One way to take away the power of secret surveillance is to make it not secret…and universal. If you want to see an interesting take on the phone scenario you present, go back and watch All the President’s Men.

      Now, by the way, my car automatically calls 911 (using my cellphone) with evidence of an accident (for example, if the airbag deploys).

      As to the “addiction” being bad…I’d like to see the studies that lay out the negative impact from being being on their phones in that restaurant. I feel a lot of presumptions from people about that, but I like the data. 🙂

      • Phink Says:

        Of course I generalized about a table of 4 having their phones out and not talking to each other. I painted all who do this with a broad brush and perhaps I shouldn’t have. I’m sure sometimes they are interacting with each other such as “look at this cat video George.” I just did not see that.

        I love human interaction. To me there is nothing better than good conversation with good friends. Most of us in the south will talk your head off even if we don’t know you but I’m worse than even most southerners. I guess that’s one reason this worries me. Even here I see it effecting how outgoing we are and how easily we communicate with friends and strangers alike. I’m afraid we are loosing that. I have no data to back it up so maybe I’m wrong.

        When my Grandson was born I was in the waiting area and there were about a dozen people in there with me, most I did not know. All but 2 of those people plus me had their phones out with their faces down. In the past there is an excellent chance those 10 people would’ve been engaged in conversation with each other. I fear over time we will lose the art of face to face conversation.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Phink!

        Well, it’s interesting. Face to face is certainly different. Even smells can affect the interaction, as well as tiny sounds that might not be picked up by a phone (a shuffling foot to indicate boredom, for example).

        I’ve taught classes related to business communications, and I’ve said that picking the right communication method for the right purpose is important:

        * E-mail: great for communicating a single idea where there isn’t likely to be dispute. “The meeting is canceled” will work better in e-mail than in person or via phone, because the other two will likely bring in more concepts and take longer (we are talking about business here)
        * Telephone (and now, this includes chat for many people): when you need to discuss something with a back and forth

        When do you meet in person?

        You do it when you want to change someone’s behavior.

        It’s hard to change behavior through e-mail or telephone (or synchronous typing)…there are a lot of subtleties to that (and I say that, as a trainer, changing people’s behavior is my job).

        As you note, there are cultural differences. I was shocked in Atlanta to have a whole MARTA train car (public transit) just opening talking about a baseball game which had just happened (not a particularly significant one). That wouldn’t happen on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) in my area…unless maybe the game had just ended and almost everybody on the train was heading home from it.

        XR (which appears to be rapidly becoming the term of choice for what I’ve been calling VAM…virtual/augmented/mixed/merged reality) could restore a lot of it. We’ll just have to see how that goes…

      • Phink Says:

        I could be placed in a room with 100 people I’ve never met and I’d be perfectly at peace. My wife would be very uncomfortable.

      • Bufo Calvin Says:

        Thanks for writing, Phink!

        I’m more like you, and my Significant Other is more like your wife. 🙂 My SO is great one-on-one, but not great in a crowd. I love crowds. One thing my parents had us do when we were kids: when adults were visiting, we each went around to each adult in turn and spoke to each of them for maybe a minute. Then, we could go play in our rooms. 🙂 I think that helped make us all comfortable with strangers…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: