Orlando police chief defends use of facial-recognition software
Chief John Mina insisted no members of the public are being tracked by the software
By Ryan Gillespie
ORLANDO, Fla. — Three surveillance cameras in downtown Orlando are equipped with Amazon’s high-tech facial-recognition software, police Chief John Mina confirmed Thursday — contradicting his claim a day earlier that the software was only being tested at OPD headquarters.
He said at a news conference that five cameras with the company’s Rekognition software are in the department’s headquarters. The software is also installed on three of the city’s IRIS cameras downtown, he said.
Mina still insisted no members of the public are being tracked by the software. Seven OPD officers who volunteered for the pilot are the only people whose images have been uploaded into the system, he said.
He said the software could someday be used in more cameras and for investigations, but “we’re a long way away from that.”
“We test new equipment all the time,” he said. “We test new guns, new vests, new shields, new things for police cars all the time. That doesn’t mean that we’re going to go with that particular product. We just want to see if it works.”
But there remain unanswered questions, including: Where are the cameras that are equipped with the technology? When was the software installed? Does Amazon have access to the video?
During the press conference, Mina told reporters they would be provided the locations of the three downtown IRIS cameras using the software. However, the department later declined to do so, saying that revealing the cameras’ locations would pose a security risk.
He was asked whether the cameras’ raw video feed goes to any Amazon servers.
“I’m not sure,” the chief said.
The existence of the software on cameras in Orlando came to light Tuesday, when the ACLU said it found records during an investigation of Amazon’s Rekognition system.
In a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, the ACLU led a group of organizations in expressing “profound concerns” about the potential for Rekognition — dubbed “supercharged surveillance” by a technology and civil liberties expert for the ACLU — to be abused.
In a statement Thursday, ACLU attorney Matt Cagle reiterated that point.
“After misleading the people of Orlando, the Orlando Police Department has finally confirmed that it is indeed using Amazon’s face surveillance technology on public cameras,” he said. “Now, it’s up to Amazon. Will it stop selling dangerous technology to the government? Or will it continue compromising customer privacy and endangering communities of color, protesters, and immigrants, who are already under attack in the current political climate?”
At the news conference, Mina said privacy isn’t an issue.
“There’s no privacy concerns because we’re just using the pictures of Orlando police officers who’ve volunteered for the program,” he said, adding: “As far as privacy, these are all public spaces, so there are no privacy concerns.”
Mina met with two Orlando Sentinel journalists Wednesday to discuss the department’s use of the Rekognition software. He said OPD “was not tracking citizens” and was only testing within the department’s headquarters — and not in any public places.
“It’s all internal,” he said in that interview. He said the agency was testing the Rekognition system by tracking the seven officers’ movements around the building.
OPD spokeswoman Michelle Guido said Mina did not know about the cameras downtown being part of the program until Thursday. She declined to make him available after the press conference to answer questions about the discrepancy.
The program is said to be able to pick a person out of a crowd and track their movements in real time. The city said no money was spent on the pilot.
In a video posted to YouTube by Amazon Web Services Korea, Ranju Das, the director of the program for Amazon, called Orlando a launch partner. He then played footage that he said was from a traffic camera in Orlando.
“They have cameras all over the city,” he said. “The authorized cameras are then streaming the data … We are a subscriber to the stream. We analyze the video in real time, search against the collection of faces that they have.”
The video showed a neighborhood street with people exiting a vehicle, and one walking a dog. The Rekognition system was able to track them, tracing their path with colorful dots.
However, Mina said that wasn’t footage of Orlando and the company didn’t have access to its traffic cameras.
“Amazon’s access to our video system is extremely restricted,” the chief said.
Amazon acknowledged Thursday that the executive misspoke.
Though the technology isn’t being used to investigate crimes or search for suspects in Orlando, Mina made clear that he hopes it one day could be. He said the technology could be used in the body-cameras OPD officers wear.
As he did Wednesday, Mina cited the death of Lt. Debra Clayton, who was killed after confronting a murder suspect last year, and the arrest of Michael Shawn Hunt, accused of stalking singer Lana Del Rey when she came to Orlando for a concert, as cases in which it could have helped.
“Those are the types of situations that we would use these cameras, this technology, in — if it in fact works,” he said. “We would never use this technology to track random citizens, immigrants, political activists or, certainly, people of color.”
Those groups were all cited by the ACLU as being at high risk of abusive surveillance if the Rekognition technology was misused.
©2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)