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Yes, Amazon Is Tracking People (cato.org)
326 points by hudon 45 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 197 comments



> When most people think of the tech giant Amazon, they think of an innovative, consumer-friendly company responsible for affordable deliveries.

This is one of those instances where I say to myself, "I wish I had listened to Richard Stallman X years ago": https://stallman.org/amazon.html


> Emo Phillips once made this joke: The other day a woman came up to me and said, "Didn't I see you on television?" I said, "I don't know. You can't see out the other way." Evidently Amazon has made that joke obsolete.

Like Stallman, I'm so uncomfortable installing a listening device in my home like OK Google, Alexa, Siri, etc.

It creeps me out on a visceral level unlike any other kind of snooping.


I don't understand why so many tech-literate people have an issue with that. As I am sure you know, those devices only record your voice and send it to the server when they hear their hotword. The hotword detection has to be done on the device itself for technical reasons (battery and data usage).

Theoretically it's possible that the companies that build those devices lie and actually record you other times. But the same applies to any internet connected device that has a camera and/or microphone, such as pretty much every laptop and mobile phone.


Software engineers are right to be scared of these voice assistants.

The problem is that typical sloppy, glitchy software (and hardware) is poised to record your voice and send it somewhere at any time, and that somewhere will play or record this, because that's what all this stuff more-or-less setup to do. It's already happened! Alexas have already "butt dialed" other people (not just amazon's servers)!

Think a bit broader than that. Things can play out of various speakers in your house and influence these voice assistants. Again, advertisements have already triggered voice assistants. Research has shown how it is possible to play voice assistant commands that humans can't hear. These devices are poised and ready to record anything anytime and send it anywhere, or just use your credentials to do anything.

My laptop is different. It does have a webcam and a microphone, and straight-up locally installed malware could take advantage. But it's not quite the boulder-atop-cliff situation of the voice assistants. I've never enabled Siri, I've disabled it everywhere possible, I don't install junk software, I often check on things in Activity Manager because freakin web apps use so much memory/cpu/network these days, so I would notice. The webcam has a light which is hack-able but it's pretty hard. My phone has Bixby but I've never enabled it, I've never clicked "I agree", I've disabled the button and the swipe activation and the background services which I am able to without rooting the device. It's in reasonable shape.


Something kind of eye-opening for me was that I recently found an Android setting to make my phone (a OnePlus 5T) vibrate whenever any app requests location data, and even with location access denied to everything, it still vibrates about once every ten or fifteen minutes. As an end user I'm helpless to know whether it's a normal function of the OS, or if I have malware, or if it's Google, or OnePlus, or the Chinese. I can only hope I'm a little fish caught up in someone's advertising scheme and I'm not being tracked by the FBI because I said the wrong mix of things online. (You know, because there's no way I'm getting rid of my smart phone.)


IMO this is a failing of Android that should be dealt with immediately. iOS has had a big red bar across the top of the screen for years when location or microphone is being accessed.


Google relies for a great deal on advertising and gathering user data, unlike Apple. On top of that they don't have tight control over who sells Android devices, nor do they appear interested in doing so. Sadly it doesn't look like they're interested in delivering better data protection for their users.


Google sells their own phones and could introduce hardware driven indicators next to the camera and microphones for when they are on if their goal was not to be evil.

It is a general problem that no one makes strong claims about indicators, so making a software driven camera led is not bad for a manufacturer's reputation.


> Research has shown how it is possible to play voice assistant commands that humans can't hear.

Do you mind linking to the research you're thinking about?



Aside from the striking similarity to 1984 there is the fact that all of these devices are internet-connected and probably have backdoors or vulnerabilities (so while they might not listen all the time normally, they can be switched to listening all the time if you become targeted). Stallman calls this a "universal backdoor". Most of these devices are always-on and are placed in central positions in your home -- this is not generally true of laptops (mobile phones are carried with you -- but I don't actually have a smartphone for this reason).

Personally I physically disconnect all of the internal microphones from my laptops, and cover the cameras. I wish more people would do the same thing. Purism actually provides physical hardware switches which is much easier-to-use than having to physically take apart your machine (though Purism used to have proprietary kernel drivers, I'm not sure what the current status is).


> Personally I physically disconnect all of the internal microphones from my laptops, and cover the cameras.

How do you deal with the former on your smartphone?


You missed this part: "I don't actually have a smartphone for this reason)."


Good for you, not practical for most of us though.


The Librem 5 will have hardware switches for the microphone and camera I believe. But at the moment I don't have a smartphone (I used to have one but eventually figured out it was a much bigger burden than it was worth).


The device is still analyzing everything and necessarily needs to in order to identify the hot word. It could be doing any type of analysis and do anything with that analysis. It is all closed source so we will never know what it does in our home. And as the technology progresses, it will get better at analyzing, and so will be able to do more analysis and more advanced analysis, and we will then be more comfortable with having this thing in our home, because we will have become accustomed to it.

RMS was smart to call it out at the beginning before it became more powerful.


>As I am sure you know, those devices only record your voice and send it to the server when they hear their hotword.

HAH. Says who?? Are you seriously going to trust companies with a terrible track record and every incentive to do this, are you going to trust them not to use their always on listening device to listen to you? I swear I don't say this to derail the conversation but I literally cannot fathom in my head how you can think like that unless you're a paid shill.


It is in the hardware. You can take one apart and see for yourself. These devices will not activate unless they at least think they hear the hotword. Once activated though, nothing is stopping them from staying on. Although Im sure you can just watch their internet traffic to prove if its listening in the moment.


You'd have to do that 24/7 though, if I understand correctly, because these devices can be updated at will.


I understand your point of view if you distrust all Android devices, iPhones and MacBooks. However, most people who say they would never use a smart speaker, happily use their laptop or smart-phone without thinking twice.


Of those voice assistant companies, what poor track record are you referencing?


Tech literate people know how hard this is to do securely and without bugs. There have already been massive bugs: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-switch/wp/2018/05/24...


Are you unaware of the Google Home Mini hardware bug that caused it to simply send everything you said? The failure modes here are plentiful and catastrophic, and the history of the teams developing these products gives us no reason to think that they're even considering our privacy in their risk profiles.


It's not that I think Amazon et al are listening. It's that that could, or someone who seizes control in an "emergency" could, or someone with "legal authority" could order it.


How is that different from a smartphone or laptop or any other device with a microphone?


Laptops aren't completely controlled by a third party.


Tech-literate people have a better understanding of what could go wrong. And that's even if they trust the creators: those of us who write code know how inevitable bugs are.

These devices are also black boxes. Your laptop, if you're technically literate, is largely an open book as far as what it's up to, should you care to investigate. Granted, your phone less so, but it's also pretty easy to corral if you want to. The entire point of the always-listening assistant is that it's always on, listening. It would be awfully silly to buy one and then unplug it whenever you're not actively talking to it.


Those two categories are not same. Their main goal is listening 24x7.


I don't think you're "tech-literate", seems like you just drank the Kool-aid and sleep well at night.

You used the word "Theoretically" like it's something so remote that's almost impossible which is both dangerously and hilariously not true.


> I don't understand why so many tech-literate people have an issue with that.

Or at least: the ones with a smartphone. What makes this different?


I assume it's the similarity to 1984.


Because it can easily be misused.

For example: Trump is one of those people that can change the US into something you would not imagine a year ago.

It's very easy to say that this wont happen but I also thought Trump would never become a president...


Your first sentence was a good observation. Dragging the specific example of Trump in polarizes the comment. Trump has already been President for over a year and the country has by no stretch seen changes that I could "not imagine."

The biggest lasting impact a president can have is appointment of judges. Congress pretty much has to do the rest, and they even have to approve the judicial appointments.


> Trump has already been President for over a year and the country has by no stretch seen changes that I could "not imagine."

It typically doesn't happen overnight; rather, your rights erode over time, usually in the name of national security. That said, even in his short tenure, I believe Trump has done much to erode the norms of functioning democracy. Just a few examples: threatening political opponents with jail, threatening journalists, and at a very minimum having the appearance of basing foreign policy on how it affects his personal business empire.


>Trump has already been President for over a year and the country has by no stretch seen changes that I could "not imagine."

Well... I for one couldn't imagine a primary channel for communicating American policy being a personal Twitter account.


I am honestly very surprised at how comfortable people are with them. I think the smartphone paved the way and normalized it. I remember friends and family being terrified that their SMS messages were being read. Now people often don't give it a second thought.


Never write anything in an email/SMS/etc that you wouldn’t feel comfortable reading on the Jumbotron in Times Square. If you follow that simple rule you'll do fine.


Well we can hope we don't have to add not saying anything out loud in public or near a smart device to that list. Perhaps it's already too late for that.


Yes, it's already too late for that :(

My wife complains sometimes that I don't talk to her anymore. After quietly turning her phone off, and putting it in a distant room, I explain why ;)


Or, more realistically, that you wouldn't feel comfortable having read back to you in court.


You shouldn't fucking have to. That just leads to social cooling.


I am uncomfortable about it too (and haven't installed any in my home), but I'm not sure what to do about the exact same issues from smart phones that we carry with us all the time: they can easily listen in on our conversation, in addition to knowing when that conversation happened and where.

The home pods are a bit of a drop in the bucket when you think about "smartphone coverage around the world".

What options are there?


I've actually told my partner that we will have no such devices in our home. Luckily we are in agreement because this is a hard line for me.


I'm going to repost a poem I saw a while ago:

"Of all sad words

Of ink and pen

The saddest are these:

'Stallman was right again'"


Hundreds of very good reasons to fight Amazon's growth as much as possible. We are sacrificing our rights, hurting our society, pushing people to near-slavery for 2 day shipping. It's disgraceful.


Hm, just browsed his page a bit again ... well, it seems still centered around, "this is bad and that is bad" "and this is wrong.. "

Not sure if this is the way to get people exited, building on better things.

I also like to read about, what works. What are working alternatives, and this he writes about ... but less so in my opinion.


I definitely don't think that silly simplistic take on Amazon. Jeff Bezos sounds like a psychopath from his public profiles. He has the right to run his firm as he sees fit of course but never have I considered Amazon to be 'benign.'


>Jeff Bezos sounds like a psychopath from his public profiles.

Then maybe he is.

>He has the right to run his firm as he sees fit of course

No. If he is harming society then we the people should stop him, fuck his "right" to do what he pleases.


Most CEOs are somewhere above average on the psychopath/sociopath spectrum.


why does he have that right?


As long as I or you can use it to track the coming and going of your Congressman and Senators, at the same price that Amazon charges others, I guess it is okay. That nice townhouse he visited with the attractive blonde who lives there, while his wife was out of town? It's ok for me to track and then publish the info, right?

We're all equal when we are in public view, right?


I've long wanted to setup a system like this.

Cameras facing all entrances and exits of the state capitol would be fed into ALPR and facial recognition software. There are enough photos of elected officials to train facial recognition. It would be easy to identify who is coming and going, what cars they own, who they travel with, and their patterns.



Politicians should have less right to privacy than us citizens.


Everyone with substantial power should have less privacy. Politicians should have almost none.


That was a core idea for the British Establishment.

Public school was where children went to learn how to operate in public life. The rest of the population had less privilege, but more privacy.


That just sounds like journalism to me, so: "Yes, it's ok."


Says you. But will the police/FBI/DA agree, or say it's terroristic stalking?


But why do you care ?


Imagine license plate readers all over town committing license plate numbers to a blockchain.


Add MAC addresses passing through major intersections and you've got some quality data to work with.


California is already rolling out "smart" licence plates, so not far off.


What do you mean by "committing license plate numbers to a blockchain"?


Probably that the records are preserved in some way that they can't be redacted or removed later.


What records? I don't understand what this is supposed to describe. Just writing every plate number some device has seen to the append-only DB? Is that it? What's value in that?


I think the value would be with recording a location and time with the plate number, not just that a plate exists.


This is a terribly clickbait-y title for HN. Amazon is not tracking people, AWS has a service offered to anyone who wants it which would be useful for large scale surveillance.

Facial recognition services are incredibly close to neutral technologies in my opinion. If we truly want to stop abuse of them, it should be done with legislation. Getting mad and ranty at one of the many offerings (which also includes open source software) because it feels good to beat up a tech giant will have no useful impact.


> Facial recognition services are incredibly close to neutral technologies in my opinion. If we truly want to stop abuse of them, it should be done with legislation.

You're entitled to that opinion. But it's just your opinion.

What I like to ask myself is: given that we know we had a corrupt individual in the highest office of the US government in the last 50 years (i.e. Nixon), how might that have turned out with each new technology that's exclusively under the executive branch's control?


yeah I think I agree, we should look at potential negative use cases of new technology to society.

I just think that positioning it as Amazon or Google or whoever doing a bad thing is misdirection. OPs article even seems to end up coming to a conclusion of needing policy to keep this under control. Someone will supply it to law enforcement, so it’s use more than its supply should be regulated because it does have myriad positive use cases also.


Can we please, for once, make this not a "Trump is evil" thread ? Besides, yes, Trump is evil, but among the general US population there are far worse people than him, and despite what you probably think, together they have far, far more control over your life than Trump does. Private individuals are already implementing something worse than China's social credit score all over America. [1] Currently they're limited somewhat by technology, and I mean that in the worst possible way: they're more limited by what they think the technology can do, more so than by what is actually possible.

Building webcams that asses creditworthiness of store customers and the likelihood of returns is possible today. How long until it happens ? How long until we discover that badly dressed black people are often flagged by whatever tool comes out ?

Tracking people by their faces ? Been done, easy now (hell, opencv comes with it built in, so does YOLO). Tracking/identifying people by their movements (and I mean by how they walk, how they grab things, ...) ? Been done. Tracking people by the proportions of the limb lengths ? Been done. Taking a bad human tracker, feeding it into an LSTM and get vastly better performance when presenting it with video ? Been done.

And it gets much worse: outsmarting most of the human race ? Been done (let's be honest: humans have lost the Turing challenge. AIs are better at chatting up humans than other humans are). But no worries : humans still beat AIs at specific problems, and indeed humans still beat AIs ... well not at making AIs actually (genetic algorithms seem to beat everything else here). But humans still beat at "full system" AI architecture. For now.

And let's go further: how long until you can no longer talk to another human being ? Because that's exactly where voice recognition will lead. The 2030 version of Google Duplex : [2]

And of course, that makes the technology itself evil, not it's use by the executive branch per se. I'm sure they'll abuse it, but I guarantee they won't be the worst of your worries.

And it's MAD. Machine learning has joined the set of technologies that we must make sure we have. Otherwise, a conflict with, say, China is going to be thoroughly unpleasant (which would make them a lot more likely to start it as well). So we can't skip that.

And yet in this thread, nobody is talking about outlawing machine learning itself. And there certainly is no international effort to do that. Without that option, we might as well stop talking about measures we can take since they'll be absurdly ineffective.

You can "do no evil" but fact of the matter is since 1970 (and really since 1870) humans have been competing by robots. Humans can effectively no longer needlepoint, because they can't do so usefully, profitably, effectively, whatever you want to call it. Systematically the realm of humans is moving from everything to a niche.

Today, AI is a mostly-invisible salesperson making you purchase more stuff on Amazon.com, making you watch more advertisements on Microsoft/FB/Youtube/Google, and so on. It's literally choosing what to present to you in order to accomplish that, just like that friendly salesperson did when you walked into bed bath and beyond in 1995.

There is no solution here that is anywhere close to even being discussed.

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/economy/the-surprisi...

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=flLoSxd2nNY


My local Kroger is now taking video of the faces of every customer as they check out. To their credit they make it obvious by having a display screen at each register where you can see what they are recording, but I stopped shopping there for that reason.


Great. Do you think it matters ?

For example, to give some vague indication of just how pervasive it already is: https://www.google.com/search?q=index+of+public+webcams

I guarantee you there's 5000 private webcams and non-web cams pointed at the street for everyone listed there. 100 government ones.

Stopping shopping is not an effective punishment, and will not lead to stopping progress on machine learning. I would just ignore it. Besides, at this point, it's probably just a security cam. 24h and your video is gone (assuming the store wasn't attacked).


Rekognition is a public service and not specific to law enforcement use[1].

[1]: https://aws.amazon.com/rekognition/

Disclaimer: I work for AWS.


It looks like law enforcement was definitely one of their let's say top 3 target markets when they built Rekognition, though.

Do know what gives it away? The fact that Amazon is actively pursuing that market and isn't just "allowing anyone to use it freely and equally".

No, they're going to law enforcement and showing them Powerpoint presentations, demos, and everything.


That reflects where the funded customer base is, not Amazon's preferences. That may be the result of a social reality of what this tech is good for and who is funded to make use of it.


It may be available to be licensed for use in the private sector, but it is hardly a "public service." Without exaggeration, I think it would be closer to the truth to call it a "public menace".


That’s a little dramatic, don’t you think?

With the exception of public figures, they aren’t sharing facial recognition datasets. This is a service that a moderately skilled team could implement with off the shelf and free software or an individual could do with a raspberry pi.

Law enforcement has been doing this for a long time in many areas. If there’s an ethical issue here, it’s with machine learning and camera surveillance in general, not Amazon.


Amazon is still facilitating it. If you’re selling guns to someone you know is a a serial killer, “someone else would have sold them a gun” is not a defense.

Edit: especially if you run ads about how effective your guns are for serial killing.


There’s a big difference between committing a crime and engaging in lawful commerce.

By your standard, HN is on the same level as Amazon, as there have been many articles here over the years describing technical details on how to implement such a system available to anyone. A serial killer may be using a raspberry pi based facial recognition system that he learned about here, right now to stalk a victim.

That’s an untenable position.


Well I mean everything is lawful commerce until it isn't. That doesn't mean it was right to do.


Implementation requires specialized skills for the hardware, software, and logistics, as well as lots of time, money, and patience. A stalker isn't going to deploy many pi zeros with cameras in many places on his own, and I'm not concerned that they will be able to round up many assistants.

Amazon's product takes care of all that nitty-gritty, thanks to the work of their many bright employees.


If a stalker isn't going to deploy many pi zeros with cameras, then Amazon isn't useful to him either. It's still up to the customer to actually take the images.

For implementing facial recognition, yeah, it takes a little bit of coding skill. Same as integrating with Rekognition.


where are the 'many areas' where law enforcement is doing real-time surveillance using a city-wide grid of cameras and and backed by facial recognition?


"public service" was a bit of a misnomer. The article states:

"Amazon is providing police departments in Orlando, Fla., and Washington County, Ore., with powerful facial recognition technology."

Rekognition is SaaS (software as a service). Anyone can pay for running Rekoginition on their data sets (within Amazon ToS). Rekognition was not created directly for the police departments in FL or OR.


This is disingenuous. It's been actively marketed to law enforcement. A product is not created out of the blue with no target market. That's simply not how things work.

And that's whats happening to with a lot of surveillance technology, see Palantir, they are being packaged and aggressively marketed to schools, law enforcement and government.

Taken together these companies are selling and enabling a surveillance dystopia for no bigger reason than personal gain and the people responsible should be called out.


I think they may have meant something more like “publicly available service”


I believe the parent probably meant service as in the 'service' in SOA.


s/disclaimer/disclosure/

Sorry, pet peeve.


Er, read the article. It links this, where the AWS speaker explicitly mentions it's use for law enforcement.

https://youtu.be/sUzuJc-xBEE


>Rekognition is a public service

When this is used to track/recognize my face in a crowd what service is it that I'm receiving?


If you are a celebrity:

“Celebrity recognition

You can quickly identify well known people in your video and image libraries to catalog footage and photos for marketing, advertising, and media industry use cases.”

It’s even named with a 1984esque style.


You could make a drone that will follow your friends/enemies around and spray them with a super soaker. Use your imagination, the first person to figure out a good answer to your question will probably make a lot of money.


Targeted Social Engineering Services :)


Using batons and castor oil


> When this is used to track/recognize my face in a crowd what service is it that I'm?

Fixed that for you.


You're receiving enhanced public safety.


The public safety of no people having different political opinion, of no people who would want to raise awareness on the problem of Amazon for this instance, because they could cause unsafe words being told to your ears.


Whoa whoa, there. Who said that? Facial recognition is a tool. You seem to be extrapolating some dystopian fantasy from this. The fact that your face can be tracked does not mean your speech will be curtailed, those two things are fairly unrelated.

Now, there are real privacy implications to facial recognition and tracking. Serious ones. There are also benefits for law enforcement. Personally, I come down on the side that the privacy is worth more than the benefit to law enforcement. But that doesn't mean that that benefit isn't real.


> The fact that your face can be tracked does not mean your speech will be curtailed, those two things are fairly unrelated.

Anonymity is one of the most effective tools for preserving free speech. If you can't speak anonymously, you're more likely to self censor what you say. If you can't consume information anonymously, you're unlikely to seek out or research unpopular views or ideas.

Barring massive social changes that are realistically never going to happen, a world where your identity and actions are always visible is a world without free speech.


I agree with some of the principles you're articulating here, but I think the general class of position you're taking here is a bad one. Free speech has an actual meaning. It means the government does not restrict speech. Tracking people does not restrict speech. It may impose a social cost on you for speaking, but it does not prevent you from doing so. Nowhere in the constitution of the United States, nor any constitution that i'm aware of, does it say that you are to be insulated from the social consequences of speaking your mind. Nor do any guarantee the right to anonymity in public spaces.

Now, will this have a chilling effect on certain kinds of speech? Most likely, yes. Should we be concerned about that? Probably. But please, do not conflate 'free speech' with 'freedom from social consequences'.


I disagree that freedom of speech can be so neatly boxed into such a narrow definition, but that isn't really the point I was trying to make.

Ignoring broader social issues and focusing purely on the government, citizen monitoring can be (and often is) utilized by governments to curtail free speech. People joke about the NSA monitoring them, but that absolutely has an impact on free speech - people are less likely to search something online the government finds distasteful when they know they're being monitored. Note that this is true even if the thing they'd search is legal.

If the government can monitor which events you show up at or what you read, does that make you more likely to be put on a no-fly list? Does that make it more likely for the government to pursue a separate legal action that it otherwise might ignore?


> Ignoring broader social issues and focusing purely on the government, citizen monitoring can be (and often is) utilized by governments to curtail free speech. People joke about the NSA monitoring them, but that absolutely has an impact on free speech

It has an impact on speech. It does not have an impact on freedom to speak. The fact that a social architecture changes behavior does not mean that it restricts it. This difference is important.

This does not mean that the right to anonymity is not important. It may well be. It just isn't the same thing as the right to free speech, and they shouldn't be conflated. I understand the desire to conflate them - anchoring the right to anonymity to the more recognized right of free speech gives it greater moral force. That's why people make arguments like that. But in so doing it lassoes the even more important right of actual free speech to the probably less important right of anonymous speech. It tethers them in a way that exposes the weaknesses of the lesser right to the greater one.

Free speech is the right to say whatever you want without government interference. The right to anonymity may be important to, but let it stand on its own.

> If the government can monitor which events you show up at or what you read, does that make you more likely to be put on a no-fly list? Does that make it more likely for the government to pursue a separate legal action that it otherwise might ignore?

Lots of things make you more or less likely to do various things. That is not the same as curtailing your right to do them. Changing organ donation from opt-in to opt-out increases the right at which people choose it. That is not the same thing as forcible organ harvesting.


Anonymity doesn't stand on its own. The right to anonymity is only important because it protects other rights. If we're not trying to preserve people's ability to express ideas that the government dislikes, then who cares if their identity is public?

Anonymity is a tool to shield people from otherwise unpreventable consequences. Separating them is like saying, "you have a right to privacy, not a right to encryption." One of these things allows you to get the other thing.

Think about why voting is usually anonymous. Most countries recognize that even with the general restrictions on government retaliating against speech, it is fundamentally impossible for us to block all of the many avenues it has to punish citizens. The only way to block that is to not allow it to know who specifically to target.

As a more modern example, America's current administration was willing to prosecute a bunch of inauguration protesters. If they had the ability to identify every single person at those protests, that would be a major deterrent to people attending them in the future. The government wouldn't even need to prosecute future participants; they'd just need to make sure that people kept in the back of their mind, "we could put you through a year-long legal battle if we wanted to."

Intimidation, targeting, and threatening is a form of suppression. We're not talking about marking a form opt-in or opt-out, we're talking about government interference into people's lives with the explicit goal of discouraging speech. It's not about whether or not people's speaking habits happen to change, it's about why they change - because they're frightened of government power to punish them for searching or expressing unpopular opinions.

People aren't conflating anonymity with free speech because it makes the argument stronger, or because they're trying to sneak it in on the side. I couldn't care less about anonymity, in except that it is the only strategy that anyone has ever come up with that allows me to have a large number of other fundamental rights that I do care about.


> Anonymity doesn't stand on its own. The right to anonymity is only important because it protects other rights. If we're not trying to preserve people's ability to express ideas that the government dislikes, then who cares if their identity is public?

The same is true of speech. It is a right that exists to protect other rights. Speaking, in and of itself is nice, but the function that right serves is the circumscription of state power.

> Anonymity is a tool to shield people from otherwise unpreventable consequences. Separating them is like saying, "you have a right to privacy, not a right to encryption." One of these things allows you to get the other thing.

I totally agree. That doesn't make it equivalent to the right to speak, however. The fact that anonymity augments the right to speak is great. That may be an argument for having a right to anonymity. It does not make the right to anonymity equal to the right to speak.

> Think about why voting is usually anonymous. Most countries recognize that even with the general restrictions on government retaliating against speech, it is fundamentally impossible for us to block all of the many avenues it has to punish citizens. The only way to block that is to not allow it to know who specifically to target.

Again, totally agree. We don't disagree that attribution has a chilling effect on speech. You're preaching to the choir here. We disagree that the right to speak is inalienable from the right to have your speech unattributed.

> People aren't conflating anonymity with free speech because it makes the argument stronger, or because they're trying to sneak it in on the side. I couldn't care less about anonymity, in except that it is the only strategy that anyone has ever come up with that allows me to have a large number of other fundamental rights that I do care about.

Your argument seems to be that "anonymity makes the right to free speech stronger, therefore the right to speak and the right to speak anonymously are equivalent". Which, to my reading, does not follow.

I think there are great arguments for the right to speak anonymously. I think you have articulated several of them nicely. I personally believe in the right to speak anonymously. But it should not be discussed as if it is the same right as the right to speech, because it is not.

Anonymous speech has costs and it has benefits. One of those costs is president. I still think it's worth it on balance, but if you say that anonymity and speech are the same, you're saying that arguments against anonymity apply to speech, and that's a dangerous game that I, and I don't think even you, really want to play in this political climate.


Again, I don't think that anonymity is a fundamental right - although if it was, you would be correct and I would agree with you. In fact, that theoretical right I don't believe in would be so distinct from freedom of speech that it might even be in opposition to it (cough right to be forgotten cough) ;).

Anonymity is an implementation detail. At the moment, it is an implementation detail that is essential. If your point is that it's not literally equivalent to free speech, then sure, definitely. We're on the same page and I agree with you.

But for all its warts and problems, if anyone wants to get rid of anonymity, then it's their job to come up with an alternative implementation. Part of supporting free speech is figuring out how to practically guarantee it in the real world, the rest is just wishful thinking.

> Speaking, in and of itself is nice, but the function that right serves is the circumscription of state power.

Quick side note, but this is a very narrow reading of free speech that I expect many people would disagree with. The function of free speech is to facilitate a person's fundamental right to share and explore ideas. Limiting the power of the government is a means to that end, not the other way around.

The idea behind a fundamental right is that it is... well, fundamental. Government doesn't give it to you, it respects that you already have it. Imagine how silly it would sound to say that freedom of religion, or racial equality, or the right to discover your own gender identity existed just so we could keep a government running smoothly :)


> But for all its warts and problems, if anyone wants to get rid of anonymity, then it's their job to come up with an alternative implementation. Part of supporting free speech is figuring out how to practically guarantee it in the real world, the rest is just wishful thinking.

I used to agree with this religiously. But now i'm not so sure. Anonymous speech is great for countering authoritarian regimes. It's great in China, Russia, North Korea. But those countries don't have freedom of speech in the first place. I'm all for anonymity technology there.

But in places that do have freedom of speech, what does anonymous speech really do for you? It seems to me that it mostly induces polarization. It encourages a certain kind of Overton-window stretching that has so far proved mostly toxic. I can't think of any examples to the contrary at the moment, though i'm sure a few must exist.

> Quick side note, but this is a very narrow reading of free speech that I expect many people would disagree with. The function of free speech is to facilitate a person's fundamental right to share and explore ideas. Limiting the power of the government is a means to that end, not the other way around.

Ok, yes, in a certain sense that is true. I don't mean "the reason people ought to be allowed to speak". But moreso, "the reason we ought to enshrine free speech in a constitution, making it especially difficult for even our democratic government to alter or amend". I think the reason you want the latter is because in a democracy, an informed public is essential. If the government has the power to limit speech, they have the power to reshape voting behavior in their own image, which short-circuits the meaning of democracy.


Do not conflate "social consequences" with "police state consequences"


If the government is imposing consequences upon speech, then speech is not free.


So? It's enabling dystopia.


So are people in general, doesn't mean we're gonna kill everyone does it?

For everything there is a use that could enable any dystopia, doesn't mean that it will actually enable it.


The facial recognition cat is out of the bag.

If AWS is "enabling dystopia", so are Linux and Ethernet.


Linux and Ethernet do not "Easily add intelligent image and video analysis to your applications."


Any image recognition API is likely to heavily rely on them.

You can do positive things with Rekognition. You can do dystopian things with it, too. Get AWS to stop doing it and folks will just use GCP and Azure's similar offerings.

This is a problem that fundamentally needs government regulation to be successfully addressed.


> You can do positive things with Rekognition.

[Citation needed]


I’ve recently worked on an app that uses it for an entirely harmless image classification feature.

This thread seems to be following the general logic that because Amazon is a big company that uses AI/ML, they must be using it for evil. I’ve never seen a thread on HN that accuses OpenCV of facilitating dystopia, or compares the project to selling guns to a serial killer.


There’s a healthy debate to be had about the risks of facial recognition, but I don’t think that it gets inherently worse when a company like Amazon streamlines the process. This particular technology is out of the bag.


[Citation provided]

The NYT (and C-SPAN, apparently) uses it to identify members of Congress:

https://open.nytimes.com/how-the-new-york-times-uses-softwar...

Shutterfly is apparently using it for image categorization:

http://ir.shutterfly.com/news-releases/news-release-details/...


I use Google Photo's image recognition all the time. I wish it was 1000x better but it's still amazing.

I uploaded about 120k photos including all my father's photos I had scanned. (about 4000)

I injured my toe when I was 10yrs old. Searched in my Google photos "toes". Found the picture pretty quickly. Have had similar success finding pictures of my childhood dogs. Can also search by people (face recognition).

It's still got a long way to go but I love it when it works.


Amazon Rekognition helps Marinus Analytics fight human trafficking http://www.marinusanalytics.com/articles/2017/10/17/amazon-r...


Sure, but the scale and degree matters, it's not a simple 1-bit binary equation.


> Amazon’s facial recognition service, Rekognition, is designed to identify and track people going about their daily business. This isn’t hyperbole - a Rekognition spokesperson explicitly mentioned real-time tracking and identification at an Amazon Web Services summit earlier this year. The same spokesperson went on to call Orlando a “smart city,” with cameras everywhere that allow authorities to track persons of interest in real time.

Truly creepy.


Are people surprised that real-time image analysis has been commodified or that local governments are already applying this technology ahead of policy discussions?

Clarifying edit: I'm not being disingenuous. I may be too close to the technology to grok why this thread is a down-vote minefield. Running OpenCV on an Arduino board is years-old proof-of-concept stuff and now I have an AWS DeepLens sitting on my desk that can name which of my neighbors walked their dog past my house.


I believe it's the latter, given the last two paragraphs of TFA:

> In order to protect civil liberties without hampering innovation, lawmakers should require public input before surveillance tools are deployed and ensure that facial recognition databases are purged of data related to law-abiding people.

> lawmakers should ensure that real-time facial recognition capability is not merged with police cameras, whether they are dash cams, CCTV cameras, or body cameras. Facial recognition may well be a valuable investigatory tool, but outfitting police with real-time facial recognition capability will only increase the likelihood of needlessly contentious and violent confrontations between police officers and members of communities across the country.


Who decides what's law abiding? Is it just felonies? Felonise + certain misdemeanors? Jay walking? What if I broke the law 10 years ago but have been a model citizen since? This kind of language worries me.

> lawmakers should require public input before surveillance tools are deployed

Again, what does that mean? Input is not the same thing as saying the public can veto it. Even if it does required explicit approval from the public is that really a great solution? The public has made a lot of shitty political decisions recently. Furthermore, who counts as part of the public? If you're a convicted felon who served his time do you count as part of the public?

This shit reeks.


Exactly, look what's happening in China and try to convince yourself that we are not starting to walk down that road.


No, but I'm sure many of the people working on it will continue to deny that they are simply building tools of control. That, or they don't care, or think it's a good thing.


There's not enough upvotes for this comment. This what the Silicon Valley mindset leads to. This is what the attitude that even if technology isn't good and empowering, it's inevitable, leads to. This is what the "whatever it takes to make money" mindset leads to. This is what all these brave young engineers going out there to "change the world" and make it a better place have done.

Totalitarianism, forever. Take solace, though, citizen: it's not just the government tracking everything you do, it's everyone!

It makes me sick. I wish I had never gone into CS. I too am a collaborator. If it were up to me, we'd destroy the machines in a Butlerian Jihad. The road we're going down is dystopia with no way out. The tools of control will be total, all-encompassing, omniscient.


I'm honestly not sure how I feel about the expectation that employees and corporations act with some (or any) kind of morality beyond "make money legally".

Philosophically I would rather laws and social norms are enforced by law and not corporations or individuals with disproportionate influence.


Are they not citizens? Surely a person has a duty above personal wealth. Past generations certainly thought that way.


I’m not sure about you but my personal identify is not wholly made up of my employment.

My comment is clearly about the danger of imposing morality through corporate influence.

I did not say that a person’s entire responsibility is to enrich themselves. I said that is the responsibility of an employee. People can and do have complex and sometimes conflicting interests and responsibilities.


> The same spokesperson went on to call Orlando a “smart city,” with cameras everywhere that allow authorities to track persons of interest in real time.

Someone needs to design an AI-powered camera-seeking spraypaint drone.


This would be pretty easy at night, just seek after ir lights.


Funny how there is a debate in France about the exact same topic: https://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2018/03/22/la-cnil-def... (FR)


I wonder what the GDPR implications of this are.


First of, law exists (i.e. "means anything") only if you have the means to enforce it, like armed squads to terrorize the population or a leverage of some other kind. Like, for example, Amazon (wherever it's located) probably has to abide to GDPR as long as it wants to sell to EU customers. Orlando city, located in the US under US jurisdiction, and not trying to sell anything to anybody in the EU doesn't give a fuck about European laws, even if they stated that Orlando should.

Second, it seems to be a popular misunderstanding, that GDPR affects Europeans everywhere they go and you need person's confirmation to store his data. It affects people currently located in Europe, and there are listed multiple very vague excuses for storing user's data without explicit consent, like "in order to protect the vital interests of the data subject or of another natural person", with which global tracking by law enforcement agencies could be easily justified.


If a European goes there, he’ll have to sign a GDPR agreement? but if the city grew tired of that, they could forbid access to Europeans altogether. Which I’m not surprised would happen one day, perhaps not under this form, but becausr of our overprotected status.


Sorry sir, we can’t let you through customs until you Accept the U.S. Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.


Sounds funny, but this could actually happen. By entering the country you agree to give up your EU rights, or turn around and get back on the plane.


Yes, this is what happens. National sovereignty still exists. Maybe, since Europeans have a supra-national entity above their countries, they don't quite grok that everywhere else a country is the top giver of the law.


I doubt it’s particularly different to Americans having trouble with the idea that not everyone has the first or second amendments. Or, even, an explicit constitution.


It's the same with many europeans having trouble with the idea that you can't safely drink tap water, have no public health guarantee and education isn't equal for everyone in the US ;-)

On a more serious note; stuff like the US amendments is often already included in the base law (the generic name for constitution) as they are much older than the US. The times where the base law was somewhat more moldable (like before widespread literacy) made that possible. For example, freedom of religion is pretty universal, except in countries where a ruling religion exists which inherently to the religion bans all others. Arms are usually removed from base laws a few hundred years in as they directly conflict with the laws that ban killing people.



I could become a “Canary Clause”: you know a jurisdiction doesn’t abuse privacy or doesn’t deploy warrantless ubiquitous surveillance until the GDPR compliance clause disappears


But it is the us government in us territory. Does gdpr even apply to other governments?


no


Doesn’t apply if you aren’t standing in the EU


GDPR applies if you are a European citizen visiting a website while on holiday in USA, for example. It doesn’t seem to me that GDPR stops when crossing a border. Which is why it has so much worldwide reach.


That is not a commonly held interpretation of the law, especially if the entities collecting & processing the data are not in the EU.



On track to achieving real life "1984"


Does this service exclude children under the age of 13?


Facial recognition software isn't particularly new and isn't specific to Amazon. Cato is just trying to sling manufactured mud at Bezos to further a political agenda because that's what they do.


Isn't Cato about "a political agenda" here in the same way the same way the EFF has political agendas?

This issue is political in the sense that it's very much about social policy... and it's just possible that it's bad social policy to let people perform/offer surveillance-at-scale as a service.

(It is kindof funny to see Cato discover one significant limit of a general philosophy of private market freedoms, though.)


Specifically, they take issue with the government creating demand for surveillance technology. Nothing unusual for a public policy organization that has Cato's perspective.


Not a fan of Amazon but this article is directly sponsored by the koch brothers. kind of weird we have transparently political articles like this yet others are banned.


Under what conditions should financial support from people who share an organization's thesis disqualify what that organization has to say on an issue?


Noted, and I'm very much notafan of Cato or the Kochs.

(Or, for that matter, Amazon.)

Regardless, the issue is real and concerning.


I am in this dangerous situation where I see posts like "X is tracking people online" and just scroll though without even giving it a thought. Help me!


This kind of bad news fatigue is a very real (and frequent) phenomenon. And it's really, really scary when you think about it. We are so accustomed to having less and less privacy (among many other things) that moving downward at the usual speed of the last decade is just the new normal.

Even worse, knowing about this phenomenon seems to do very little to stop it. At least that's what I'm feeling.


Become a member of EFF and FSF, so that even if you cannot think about it anymore, some people will (I did just that).


No, Amazon isn't! It's the company/government/whatever that implements a service Amazon is offering to everyone.

All it takes you to do the same is create an AWS account, fill in some info so they can bill you for the services you use, a bit of code and some camera's.

I know it's very popular these days to quickly blame it on the big tech names, and yes they are doing a lot of shady things, but articles like this are simply name calling and not explaining how things really work.

Besides that, this technology is not new. Xovis camera's for example have this ability build in for a long time already. Those camera's are installed in a lot of public places like shopping malls, railway stations, airports etc and they are used to track you. Just because Amazon made a scalable central version of this doesn't make them track you.

People who write articles like this should do some research first ...


Cases like this (where government is the "consumer" for the technology) make me think surveillance tech could be the law enforcement version of military spending on defense contractors.


I guess we will all have to wear a full face of juggalo makeup to remain anonymous in public from now on.


Shadowrun was right.

https://cvdazzle.com


If you haven't noticed, we've been outlawing the ability to obfuscate yourself from these systems as we've been building them.


They deliver stuff to my door within 1 hour to 3 days and save me the hassle of driving 15 minutes each way to Walmart, the closest option for varied purchasing, so... I'm fine with it.


"asleep at the wheel" is extremely generous.


It’s the hoi polloi they are hoping are asleep in this case.

But IMO no amount of hand wringing will stop this inevitable total surveillance short of a constitutional amendment.


We might just need to work on that.

I imagine a high-profile incident with privacy violations will turn up one day and make the public interested. By the time that happens it would be beneficial to already have a privacy amendment proposal.


I'm a little surprised that a Libertarian think tank is taking issue with a private company going about its very profitable business.


Looking beyond the clickbait-y headline, I think the article takes issue with the use of this technology by government, which fits perfectly well with a Libertarian POV.


If even the libertarians are complaining, maybe there's a problem here?


[flagged]


Sarcasm aside, Intel actually does / did sell a facial analytics platform that's embedded in many, many vending machines, digital signage, etc: https://aimsuite.intel.com/


this is the classic argument around blaming the tool or the user. The gun debate runs along the same lines. Saying "Amazon is Tracking People" is like saying Smith and Wesson is shooting people.


Well, it's not like people go out facial-recognizing for sport or recreation...


Huh, it actually could be sports though. I'm trying to come up with the name… "Competitive blackmailing" sounds fun, what do you think?


Of course they do.

Paparazzi and autograph hunters, to name two obvious examples.


What


send help :(


I distinctly remember watching the Amazon conference when they demonstrated their facial recognition software. It occurred to me that if this technology was around in Mao's China or Stalin's Russia the twentieth century might have been darker and bloodier than it already was. This technology certainly has a lot of potential for improving, but it also has a huge potential for violating human rights. Kudos to the author for talking about this.


Many governments and large rich organizations already have this... so really AWS is just democratizing it. While I agree that's it's creepy af, it's not exactly new. Perhaps through this widening of access the stakes become more obvious and talked about (shining a light).

Once a thousand startups are using this in a non-secretive way, maybe voters will wake up and demand regulation?

It may be a side-effect, but Kudos to Amazon regardless if it does raise awareness.


Kind of confused why Rekognition continues to be made into the 'bad guy' here. Even if stronger protections are rolled out for this it's become far too easy to make these types of systems to do a great job of keeping them at bay at this point. Most people with programming experience could roll out a reasonably accurate facial comparison/recognition model like Rekognition and deploy it to a Raspberry Pi without expelling too much effort. There are many open datasets for it

EDIT: fixed a spelling error


Companies do it at scale, though. And motivated by profits, not regard for 'good guy' or 'bad guy' status.


I've never understood why I care who does it, honestly. Companies? The government? A person stalking my wife? The negatives are obvious, do I really care who is doing it? These discussions often feel like tax law debate to me. We're debating whether or not X person is bad for legally avoiding tax, instead of talking about restricting tax laws.

Likewise, we're sitting here focused on Amazon for implementing facial recognition instead of focusing on changing laws and government "culture" to make such an act against its own citizens far from accepted. I don't like what Amazon is doing either, but attempting to stop people from advancing facial recognition seems fruitless at best. Facial recognition is here, and it's only going to get easier, better and faster.

Can we focus on finding ways to prevent/identify/etc bad actors? Because facial recognition is coming, regardless of Amazon, and bad actors aren't loyal to amazon.


I suspect if this stuff was more widely democratized we might see more progress in that area, but that's not really what Amazon is doing. Amazon's tech is (ostensibly) not available to bad actors, and is designed to dismiss any public concerns like "how will stalkers use it?"

Tech like this is designed and deployed in such a way as to discourage people from thinking it's a problem that needs a fundamental solution. If people realize it's a problem at all they assume it will be solved with just a few laws or a company protest.

If there was a public website you could go to where anyone without authentication could monitor every street in your town, maybe that would spark more citizen-controlled solutions, in the same way that browser extensions intercepting Facebook logins at coffee shops sparked https adoption.

The problem of democratizing surveillance is that many laws prevent neutral actors from building these systems (what's your state's 2-party consent law for audio and video in public spaces?) As a result, the only people doing widescale recording are exempt institutions and companies that people are trained to think aren't a problem, or criminals that people think are rare or limited because their results aren't widely broadcast.

It's like social security numbers. If a company started just publicly releasing them en mass via its Twitter account, we would quickly figure out an alternative way to authenticate that prevented them from doing that. But if instead a company just leaks them to the black market, well that's just a security breach and the system doesn't need to change - even though the practical effects are very similar.

It's trivial to secretly monitor people via facial recognition. It's not trivial to publicize or demonstrate how easy it is in a dramatic way that will spark public attention.


This doesn't really matter. You can do it at scale too, just spin up your NN on any of the cloud platforms available. Instant scale. The fact that amazon offers this recognition lowers the barrier hardly at all.


>just spin up your NN on any of the cloud platforms available

"just"...

Amazon marketed it to police explicitly, I'm pretty sure the open source team working on TensorFlow isn't going around suggesting you plop a model on Linode and use it to catch criminals. This isn't something that police departments have the ability or skill to discover and implement on their own, setting the menial bits up for them and suggesting a solution is half the battle with government stuff like this.


Police departments have started to get smart about technology.

The Seattle Police Department now has a division focusing on data analysis. This came out of a consent decree with the Justice Department to study compliance for use-of-force incidents, but is now being used for other things to quantify how well the police are using resources in different neighborhoods. Recently they sponsored a hackathon sprint for local developers to come up with ways to quickly anonymize police body cam footage so that citizens who were not the subject of an investigation could not be identified, but still provide requested footage in a timely manner.

https://statescoop.com/seattle-police-department-launches-da...


> Amazon marketed it to police explicitly

I don't see that in the article. Can you provide a source for that?

> This isn't something that police departments have the ability or skill to discover and implement on their own, setting the menial bits up for them and suggesting a solution is half the battle with government stuff like this.

It's something I have the ability to do on my own. Any police department could hire someone like me.


"Amazon marketing materials promoted the idea of using Rekognition in conjunction with police body cameras in real time"

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/may/22/amazon-re...


Sure you can spin up unlimited servers. But an individual doesn't have the resources to collect data from across the city at all times, which is where we really start getting into invasion of privacy.


The scale at which Amazon operates is obviously different from a weekend hackathon project. The potential for misuse is much higher.


Your argument is that because other people can do it, that makes it OK for Amazon to do it.

If you ever have children, wait for them to make this same argument. It should happen around the age of five.


Here on Hacker News I’ve read the opposite. Whenever any new technology product is offered by Amazon the refrain is always “that can be replicated with x, y, z”.


>Kind of confused why Recognition continues to be made into the 'bad guy' here.

Because some people respond to a hypothetical better when they can see concrete aspects of it, not just hear a description of the possibility space.

"I could build that if I wanted to" vs. Recognition is a bit like the difference between the black market and dispensaries, a difference of scale is a difference of kind.


Agree that it's a problem that needs to be fixed in more permanent ways, but debatably protesting and slowing down companies like Amazon gives us more time to find a solution.

It's a band-aid, but band-aids are an extremely useful medical tool. They only become problematic if used as an excuse to avoid stitching the wound.


Most people could probably steal from two or three houses without expending too much effort too. Of course, that's illegal because most people don't support allowing random third parties to steal from them. The wider population considers people who do that to be objectively shitty people, and always did, even before there were formalized national codes of laws to forbid it.

Sure makes you think...




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