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Amazon Faces Backlash Over 'Rekognition' Software's Use By Law Enforcement

Shareholder groups, civil liberties organizations, and over 150,000 consumers have signed letters and petitions calling on Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition technology to law enforcement, fearing a high potential for abuse from the government.

Amazon Shareholders Concerned About Governments' Use Of “Rekognition”

In a letter to Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, 19 shareholders expressed their concerns with Amazon’s “Rekognition” facial recognition technology being used by law enforcement. According to them, the technology poses not only privacy risks to customers, but also for Amazon’s stock value and the company’s investors.

The shareholders worry that while Rekognition may be used to aid law enforcement in legal activities, it could also be used to violate human rights. The letter comes at a time when the Trump administration is embroiled in a scandal over separating immigrant children from their parents. ACLU had warned before that Amazon’s Rekognition could be used to identify immigrants in order for the U.S. government to round them up and deport them.

The shareholders also quoted several recent reports showing that facial recognition technology is either not sufficiently accurate, making many mistakes when trying to identify people, or it’s accurate mostly when trying to identify white people but not so much when identifying people of color. Erroneous matches could be quite troublesome for those misidentified by the system.

In April 2018, a coalition of more than 40 leading U.S. civil and racial justice organizations said facial recognition technology developed by Axos would be “categorically unethical to deploy” and “would inevitably misidentify some innocent civilians as suspects."

The letter to Axon also said:

“In addition, research indicates that face recognition technology will never be perfectly accurate and reliable, and that accuracy rates are likely to differ based on subjects’ race and gender.

Real-time face recognition therefore would inevitably misidentify some innocent civilians as suspects. These errors could have fatal consequences—consequences that fall disproportionately on certain populations.

Real-time face recognition could also prime officers to perceive individuals as more dangerous than they really are and to use more force than the situation requires. No policy or safeguard can mitigate these risks sufficiently well for real-time face recognition ever to be marketable.”

The Amazon shareholders are also concerned that the sale of Rekognition software would expand to less democratic countries, where those governments would use it to incarcerate and torture democracy advocates. The shareholders demanded that Amazon “immediately halt the expansion, further development, and marketing of Rekognition” to all governments until the Board of Directors has placed appropriate guidelines and policies to safeguard the rights of customers, shareholders, another citizens.

Prior to this, Amazon refuted the claims that its facial recognition technology will be abused by law enforcement, saying that it will instead "benefit society."

Civil Rights Groups Join The Call

The ACLU, Demand Progress, CREDO, and the Congressional Black Caucus have also joined the shareholders in telling Amazon to stop selling its Rekognition technology to law enforcement.

Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties Director for the ACLU of California, said:

“The message sent to Amazon today by its shareholders, more than 150,000 consumers, and a nationwide coalition is loud and clear: If Amazon is indeed a customer-centric company that opposes secret government surveillance, it needs to stop selling dangerous face surveillance to the government that can be used to attack protesters, target immigrants, and spy on neighborhoods.”

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.