Amazon to ban police use of facial recognition software for a year | Technology

Amazon is implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of its artificial intelligence software Rekognition amid a growing backlash over the tech company’s ties to law enforcement.

The company has recently stated its support for the Black Lives Matter movement, which advocates for police reform – using Twitter to call for an end to “the inequitable and brutal treatment of black people” in the US and has putting a “Black lives matter” banner at the top of its home page. But the company has been criticized as hypocritical because it sells its facial recognition software to police forces.

Amazon has not said how many police forces use the technology, or how it is used, but marketing materials have promoted Rekognition being used in conjunction with police body cameras in real time.

When it was first released, Amazon’s Rekognition software was criticized by human rights groups as “a powerful surveillance system” that is available to “violate rights and target communities of color”. Advocacy groups also said the technology could have a disproportionately negative effect on non-white people. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez echoed this complaint in a tweet on Wednesday, saying the technology “shouldn’t be anywhere near law enforcement”.

“Facial recognition is a horrifying, inaccurate tool that fuels racial profiling and mass surveillance,” she said. “It regularly falsely [identifies] Black and Brown people as criminal”.

An experiment run by the ACLU in 2018 showed Rekognition incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress to photos of people arrested for a crime. It overwhelmingly misidentified Congress members who are not white. Facial recognition software, like many forms of artificial intelligence, has a long history of racial bias. The field of artificial intelligence, which is overwhelmingly white and male, is frequently criticized for its lack of diversity.

In a statement on its blog Wednesday, Amazon said it will pull the use of its technology from police forces until there is stronger regulation around it. The move follows IBM putting a permanent end to its development of facial recognition technology.

“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,” Amazon said. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

While some privacy advocates say the move represents a step in the right direction, Evan Greer, of digital rights group Fight for the Future, said this is “nothing more than a public relations stunt from Amazon”.

She said Amazon could spend the year moratorium improving the technology and lobbying Congress to make industry-friendly regulation so the technology can be implemented in the future. Amazon spent $16.8m on lobbying in 2019.

“The reality is that facial recognition technology is too dangerous to be used at all,” Greer said. “Like nuclear or biological weapons, it poses such a profound threat to the future of humanity that it should be banned outright.”

Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties director with the American Civil Liberties Union of northern California, also called on Amazon to make more meaningful commitments. “This surveillance technology’s threat to our civil rights and civil liberties will not disappear in a year,” Ozer said. “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. They should also commit to stop selling surveillance systems like Ring that fuel the over-policing of communities of color. 

The Washington county sheriff’s office in Oregon, the first law enforcement agency in the country to contract with Amazon to use the technology, confirmed on Wednesday it would suspend its use of the product in light of the announcement.

Suspension of this particular program does not mean all partnerships with law enforcement will be halted. Amazon noted in its announcement that the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, as well as technology companies Thorn and Marinus Analytics, will still have access to Rekognition for human trafficking cases.

Amazon also has not made changes to Ring, its camera-connected smart doorbell company, which has also been criticized for increasing the policing of non-white Americans. A report from Motherboard in 2019 revealed black and brown people are more likely to be surveilled by the Neighbors app, where Ring users can post videos and photos of “suspicious” people caught on camera.

The doorbell app now partners with more than 1,300 police forces across the US – a 300% increase from just 400 police forces in August 2019. The ACLU has called on Amazon to “stop selling surveillance systems like Ring that fuel the over-policing of communities of color”. It also called on other companies that power facial recognition, including Microsoft, to halt the technology.

“Face recognition technology gives governments the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go,” said Ozer. “It fuels police abuse. This surveillance technology must be stopped.”

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