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How Amazon’s Facial-Recognition Technology is Supercharging Local Police

Deputies in this corner of western Oregon outside ultraliberal Portland used to track down criminals the old-fashioned way, faxing caught-on-camera images of a suspect around the office in hope that someone might recognize the face. Then, in late 2017, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office became the first law enforcement agency in the country known to use Amazon’s artificial-intelligence tool Rekognition, transforming this thicket of forests and suburbs into a public testing ground for a new wave of experimental police surveillance techniques. Almost overnight, deputies saw their investigative powers supercharged, allowing them to scan for matches of a suspect’s face across more than 300,000 mug shots taken at the county jail since 2001. A grainy picture of someone’s face — captured by a security camera, a social media account or a deputy’s smartphone — can quickly become a link to their identity, including their name, family and address.

More than 1,000 facial-recognition searches were logged last year, said deputies, who sometimes used the results to find a suspect’s Facebook page or visit their home… “Just like any of our investigative techniques, we don’t tell people how we catch them,” said Robert Rookhuyzen, a detective on the agency’s major crimes team who said he has run “several dozen” searches and found it helpful about 75% of the time. “We want them to keep guessing…

But lawyers in Oregon said the technology should not be, as many see it, an imminent step forward for the future of policing, and they frame the system not as a technical milestone but a moral one: Is it OK to nab more bad guys if more good guys might get arrested, too? “People love to always say, âHey, if it’s catching bad people, great, who cares,’ ” said Joshua Crowther, a chief deputy defender in Oregon, “until they’re on the other end.”