“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” the company wrote. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Facial-recognition technology has emerged as a key battleground for tech giants vying for business from customers eager to use the latest tools of artificial intelligence. The technology can help identify people and is critical for such services as unlocking smartphones and tagging friends in photos on social media. But it has also taken on a new and controversial life in law enforcement and other areas, which has raised privacy and bias concerns.
Privacy advocates have criticized Amazon for selling Rekognition to law enforcement, concerned it could lead to the wrongful arrest of innocent people who bear only a resemblance to a video image. And studies have shown that facial-recognition systems misidentify people of color more often than white people.
Rekognition is a tool offered by Amazon Web Services, the company’s profitable cloud computing arm, and it’s relatively cheap and easy to use. It can take grainy photos from a security camera or elsewhere and run them against thousands of photos, like a police department’s database of mug shots, to find a potential match.
Oregon’s Washington County Sheriff’s Office, for example, said last year that it spent about $700 to upload its first big haul of photos and paid about $7 a month after that. Amazon, though, hasn’t named the law-enforcement organizations that use Rekognition, or even disclosed how many use the technology.
Amazon is not pulling the product from the market altogether. It will continue to allow organizations that help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families to continue to use its Rekognition technology, it said.
Some of the sharpest criticism of Rekognition came from the American Civil Liberties Union, which on Wednesday said the moratorium didn’t go far enough.
“This surveillance technology’s threat to our civil rights and civil liberties will not disappear in a year,” Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, said in a statement. “Amazon must fully commit to a blanket moratorium on law enforcement use of face recognition until the dangers can be fully addressed, and it must press Congress and legislatures across the country to do the same.”
The ACLU also called on Amazon to stop selling its Ring doorbell cameras. The unit has partnered with hundreds of police forces across the country to provide potential access to homeowners’ camera footage, which Ozer says “fuels police abuse.”
The decision to pause use of the technology by police surprised critics such as Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Constitution Project at the Project On Government Oversight, an accountability group, because Amazon has attacked reports that found flaws with Rekognition.
“In the past, they’ve been pretty hostile to the very good research that’s been done,” Laperruque said.
The only reason Amazon reversed course on Rekognition, he says, is the public outcry over police tactics in the wake of Floyd’s death. Protesters are calling into question a wide range of policing that could lead to racial abuse.
“It’s highlighted a risk of how this technology could be used in its worst way,” Laperruque said.
On Monday, IBM said it will get out of the facial-recognition business altogether over concerns about how the technology can be used for mass surveillance and racial profiling.
One tech giant that hasn’t announced any changes with the way it sells facial-recognition technology is Microsoft. Two years ago, Microsoft called on the U.S. government to regulate facial-recognition technology, noting that companies aren’t likely to regulate themselves. Microsoft did not immediately respond to a request for comment on if it planned changes in the uses of its facial-recognition technology now that Amazon paused police use of its system.
One of the authors of a study by the MIT Media Lab that found the Rekognition system performed more accurately when assessing lighter-skinned faces called on Microsoft to act.
“Microsoft also needs to take a stand. More importantly our lawmakers need to step up,” the researcher, Joy Buolamwini, said via email. “We cannot rely on self-regulation or hope companies will choose to rein in harmful deployments of the technologies they develop.”
One of the politicians taking up the call to regulate the technology, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said facial-recognition systems should not be used without rules to protect Americans against “inaccurate, discriminatory algorithms and misuse.”
“That goes double for people of color, who are more likely to be wrongly identified and subject to FR for no reason,” Wyden said in an emailed statement.
Amazon employees in recent years have pressed the company over similar issues. Two years ago, workers called on Bezos to end the sale of facial-recognition technology to law enforcement agencies and to discontinue partnerships with companies that work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Amazon has faced criticism in recent weeks regarding race at the company. In April, its top legal executive suggested the company’s senior leaders fend of workplace safety criticism by trying to turn the focus on a black activist warehouse worker it had recently fired, calling the worker in a leaked memo “not smart, or articulate.” After the comments became public, the lawyer, David Zapolsky said in a statement that his comments were “personal and emotional.”
As protests over the killing of Floyd grew, Bezos took to Instagram in the past week, posting two letters from Amazon customers complaining over the company’s decision to run “Black Lives Matter” at the top of its e-commerce site. Bezos wrote that he has received “a number of sickening but not surprising responses” to his posts. And he said those were “the kind of customers I’m happy to lose.”