Early last year, the company began courting the Washington County Sheriff’s Office outside of Portland, Ore., eager to promote how it was using Amazon’s service for recognizing faces, emails obtained by the A.C.L.U. show. Chris Adzima, a systems analyst in the office, told Amazon officials that he fed about 300,000 images from the county’s mug shot database into Amazon’s system.
Within a week of going live, the system was used to identify and arrest a suspect who stole more than $5,000 from local stores, he said, adding there were no leads before the system identified him. The technology was also cheap, costing just a few dollars a month after a setup fee of around $400.
Mr. Adzima ended up writing a blog post for Amazon about how the sheriff’s office was using Rekognition. He spoke at one of the company’s technical conferences, and local media began reporting on their efforts. After the attention, other law enforcement agencies in Oregon, Arizona and California began to reach to Washington County to learn more about how it was using Amazon’s system, emails show.
In February of last year, before the publicity wave, Mr. Adzima told an Amazon representative in an email that the county’s lawyer was worried the public might believe “that we are constantly checking faces from everything, kind of a Big Brother vibe.”
“They are concerned that A.C.L.U. might consider this the government getting in bed with big data,” Mr. Adzima said in an email. He did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Deputy Jeff Talbot, a spokesman for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said Amazon’s facial recognition system was not being used for mass surveillance by the office. The company has a policy to use the technology only to identify a suspect in a criminal investigation, he said, and has no plans to use it with footage from body cameras or real-time surveillance systems.
“We are aware of those privacy concerns,” he said. “That’s why we have a policy drafted and why we’ve tried to educate the public about what we do and don’t do.”