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Amazon, Orlando Police Department reinitiate facial recognition pilot

The police department needs more time to evaluate the technology.

John Macdougall/Getty Images

The Orlando Police Department plans to restart tests of controversial facial recognition software made by Amazon after complaints about privacy prompted the department to halt the program last month.

The Florida law enforcement agency will test the software, called Rekognition, with eight city-owned cameras, the department confirmed in an email. Orlando PD may add more cameras  to test whether the software can handle larger volumes.

Rekognition is designed to identify people, objects and activities in both videos and images, using databases.

"We have made good strides in testing this technology and believe it is important to continue this evaluation period to determine if it's a concept that could add immeasurable value in enhancing the city's public safety mission in a manner that balances reasonable privacy concerns," John Mina, Orlando's police chief, said in a statement.

The decision marks a change of heart after the department dropped its pilot program in June following an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos from the ACLU that highlighted privacy concerns. Amazon employees have also protested the sale of Rekognition software.

Last Friday, police and city officials told the city council and the mayor they wanted more time to evaluate Rekognition before deciding whether the city should purchase it. Orlando is currently testing the software in a pilot that uses video streams from city-owned cameras and photos of seven police officers who volunteered.

Amazon's facial recognition technology has a diverse clientele, including AI developers, communication companies and others.

Potential customers, such as the Orlando PD, can run multiple tests to evaluate the software without becoming an official client of Amazon's Rekognition, as long as the company is willing to grant the pilot. It's unclear which other law enforcement agencies, if any, are piloting Rekognition.

"Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology," an AWS spokesperson said in an emailed statement. "Like any of our AWS services, we require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition."