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Orlando Police scramble to defend Amazon facial recognition pilot

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Orlando Continues To Mourn The Mass Shooting At Gay Club That Killed 49 Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In a press conference today, Orlando Police Chief John Mina offered new details on the city’s facial recognition program, on the heels of new documents published by the ACLU of Northern California earlier this week. Speaking to local press, Mina said the existing pilot was limited to basic testing, and no members of the public were entered for search.

“We would never use this technology to track random citizens, immigrants, activists, or people of color,” Mina told the crowd. “The pilot program is just us testing this technology out to see if it even works.” Facial recognition algorithms have struggled with racial bias across the industry; no relevant data is available on bias in Amazon’s system specifically.

When the news first broke, Mina had claimed the pilot was limited to use on cameras inside police headquarters, but today, he revised that to include three cameras facing public areas in downtown Orlando. Still, the only faces uploaded for search were seven OPD officers, all of whom had volunteered.

Mina defended the possibilities of facial recognition more broadly, pointing to a case earlier this year in which an Orlando man was arrested for kidnapping threats against the singer Lana Del Rey.

“We had identified him,” Mina said. “We knew he was en route to the arena. We didn’t know when exactly he was going to get there. Imagine if this technology had been in place and cameras were able to track him and alert us that he was getting close.”

Amazon has also walked back some public statements around the Orlando project. Much of the early information on the project came from a public talk by project director Ranju Das, who described “cameras all over the city” feeding data back to Amazon servers. Last night, that video was updated with a notice claiming that Das misspoke.

“The City of Orlando is testing Amazon’s Rekognition Video and Amazon Kinesis Video Streams internally to find ways to increase public safety and operational efficiency,” the update reads, “but it’s not correct that they’ve installed cameras all over the city or are using in production. We apologize for any misunderstanding.”