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Amazon pitched its facial recognition system to ICE

Amazon pitched its facial recognition system to ICE

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Amazon employees met with officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) this summer as part of a sustained attempt to sell the company’s controversial facial recognition technology, as revealed by internal emails obtained by the Project on Government Oversights and first published in The Daily Beast.

The emails show that ICE officials met with Amazon on June 12th, in a McKinsey office in California, giving a specific pitch on the Rekognition program as well as more general machine learning capabilities within Amazon Web Services. The same official followed up a month later with a public link to a blog post that responded to privacy concerns raised by the ACLU. There’s no indication that ICE ultimately purchased or used the system.

In a statement to The Verge, Amazon acknowledged the validity of the emails. “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,” a representative wrote. “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.)”

Available as an API within Amazon cloud services, Rekognition came under scrutiny earlier this year after a report from the ACLU of Northern California showed the feature was being used by a number of small law enforcement agencies, some for as little as $6 a month. Amazon has not submitted its algorithm to the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Facial Recognition Vendor Test or similar programs that publicly test for racial bias, which is a persistent concern in facial recognition systems.

In The Daily Beast emails, Amazon was specifically pitching to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), which is primarily concerned with customs violations, including a recent Dark Web sting. HSI is largely separate from the Enforcement and Removal Operations division that initiates deportations, but it shares many resources with that division. Activists have raised concerns about facial recognition sales to any law enforcement agency, and those concerns have had a significant impact on the industry. Earlier this month, an anonymous Amazon employee publicly urged the company not to sell the Rekognition product to police.

Update 10/24 7:59PM ET: Updated with statement from Amazon.