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ACLU demands DHS disclose its use of facial-recognition tech

The civil liberties advocacy group's request comes after reports that Amazon pitched ICE on using its recognition software.

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Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

The American Civil Liberties Union on Wednesday called on the Department of Homeland Security to disclose its use of facial-recognition software.

The nonprofit also again pushed for an end to law enforcement's use of the technology.

The ACLU's statement follows reports Tuesday that US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials met this summer with Amazon. Around that time, the company pitched the agency on potentially using its facial-recognition software, called Rekognition, along with other Amazon products. A handful of US police agencies are already trying out Rekognition as part of their crime-fighting and investigative efforts.

ICE, which enforces immigration laws inside the US except at the borders, is part of DHS.

The ACLU since May has criticized Amazon's marketing of its facial-recognition software to law enforcement and has asked Congress and the public to debate the technology's use. The advocacy group has argued that facial-recognition technology has the potential of being misused by police agencies and of misidentifying people. Several Amazon employees have sided with the ACLU's position, demanding that their company stop offering Rekognition to law enforcement.

However, when asked at a conference last week about Amazon's work with the government, CEO Jeff Bezos said his company will continue to support the US Defense Department.

"If big tech companies are going to turn their backs on the Department of Defense, we are in big trouble," he said there. "This is a great country, and it does need to be defended."

Both Amazon and ICE said that outreach discussions with potential vendors are a typical practice. 

"We participated with a number of other technology companies in technology 'boot camps' sponsored by McKinsey Company, where a number of technologies were discussed, including Rekognition," an Amazon Web Services spokesperson said in a statement. "As we usually do, we followed up with customers who were interested in learning more about how to use our services (Immigration and Customs Enforcement was one of those organizations where there was follow-up discussion)."

ICE's Homeland Security Investigations doesn't currently have a contract with Amazon but has used facial-recognition technology to help with criminal investigations related to fraudulent activities, identity theft and child exploitation crimes, ICE spokesman Matthew Bourke said. He added that the group plans to keep exploring the use of new technologies for its investigations, 

"We can't provide data on how often we've met with a particular vendor to discuss emerging technology they're developing or speculate on future contracting actions," Bourke continued, "but industry outreach and building relationships with potential contractors is fairly standard within government acquisition."

The ACLU said Wednesday it submitted a public records request to DHS, asking for information about its purchase of facial-recognition software, as well as records on any meetings with vendors marketing the technology.

"ICE should not be using face recognition for immigration or law enforcement," Neema Singh Guliani, the ACLU's senior legislative counsel, said in a statement. "Congress has never authorized such use and should immediately take steps to ensure that federal agencies put the brakes on the use of face recognition for immigration or law enforcement purposes."

First published Oct. 24 at 9:40 a.m. PT.
Updates at 11:01 a.m. PT and 2:28 p.m. PT: Adds Amazon's and ICE's statements.

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