Will Amazon's move to bar cops from using facial recognition software have consequences?
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Law enforcement's use of facial recognition technology was always controversial. Now it's politically toxic.
Amazon's surprise announcement that it would put a moratorium on police use of its facial recognition software for the next year underscores the big questions surrounding the technology as protests spark a nationwide debate about police brutality and surveillance tactics. Amazon's brief news release never mentioned the words George Floyd, but the Washington Post's Jay Greene notes the company hinted that recent events drove this decision.
"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 said in a statement. "We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested."
Tech companies have been aggressively competing to develop facial recognition software. But police use of the nascent technology has long raised alarm bells among privacy and civil rights activists.
Now the technologists are struggling to justify selling it to police while publicly stating that they support the Black Lives Matter Movement and stand with the protesters.
Just a few days ago, Amazon chief executive and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos was aggressively defending the company's support of the Black Lives Matter movement on Instagram. Bezos posted a hateful message he received criticizing the company's position that included racist slurs, saying he was "happy to lose" that customer.
Amazon's moratorium on its facial recognition product, called Rekognition, has key limits. It's temporary, and the company's statement only says the ban applies to its relationships with police who use it. Under these circumstances, it would be easy to dismiss the move as something of a public relations action providing Amazon cover until the controversy over the protests dies down.
But the action from one of the most prominent players in the market probably will continue to impact the facial recognition debate in the long term.
Amazon's move is a major win for activists who have kept the pressure on governments to ban the technology. And it could give more momentum to their push for more heavy-handed regulation.
Here's how Amazon's decision could shake up the debate over the future of facial recognition:
1. It increases scrutiny of police departments' ties to other facial recognition companies.
It's unclear how many police departments were using Rekognition before this ban. In a PBS Frontline interview earlier this year, Amazon Web Services chief executive Andy Jassy said the company had no idea how many police departments were using the software - let alone how they were employing it.
Amazon's move highlights that relationship, and could embolden journalists and activists to more closely scrutinize how police are deploying technology in their communities. It may also put pressure on police departments to be more transparent with the public about what facial recognition software they're using, and how it's being deployed.
Amazon certainly isn't the only player in town. Microsoft has been aggressively pushing into facial recognition as well, and The Washington Post's Drew Harwell has noted there are a host of other tech companies law enforcement can turn to for this technology. Harwell wrote last year that some police agencies have in recent years run facial recognition searches against state or FBI databases using systems built by contractors such as Cognitec, IDEMIA and NEC.
2. It puts the ball in Microsoft's court to make a similar move.
For years, Microsoft has sought to position itself as a responsible player in the facial recognition business. Microsoft president Brad Smith made a big splash when he announced the company was pushing for regulation of the technology in 2018, and he's highlighted times the company has refused customer requests for ethical reasons.
But this week Microsoft has been silent on the issue.
Privacy advocates are turning up the pressure, calling for Microsoft to also back down in the wake of Amazon's announcement and IBM's statement it would stop providing general facial recognition systems entirely earlier this week.
"Microsoft is another one of the largest vendors of police-used face surveillance," the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Matthew Guariglia wrote in a blog post. "It must now follow suit and end government use of its facial recognition program."
3. It highlights a body of research showing facial recognition is less accurate in identifying people of colour.
Late last year, a landmark federal study on facial recognition cast broad doubts about the accuracy of the technology. Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men, depending on the particular algorithm used by the software, Harwell reported. The technology was least accurate in identifying Native Americans of all ethnicities. African American women were falsely identified more often in the searches police use to compare a photo to a database of thousands or millions of people to identify a suspect.
The federal report, prepared by The National Institute of Standards and Technology, confirmed previousstudies that found similar error rates.
Notably, Amazon did not submit its algorithms for NIST to evaluate. The algorithms came from a range of major tech companies and surveillance contractors, including Idemia, Intel, Microsoft, Panasonic, SenseTime and Vigilant Solutions.
4. It raises questions about federal agencies' continued use of Rekognition
Amazon's announcement did not address its relationships with federal law enforcement agencies, which have also been controversial.
Amazon has sought to position itself as more willing to work with government agencies in this space than Microsoft. Harwell previously reported Amazon pitched its system to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to help them identify or target immigrants.
"We will serve the federal government, and they will have to use the technology responsibly," Jassy said at the 2019 Code Conference after being asked if the company worked with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "Any government department that's following the law, we will serve them."
The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment on what its moratorium means for relationships with federal law enforcement or other government agencies. Amazon did say it would continue to allow Rekognition to be used to address child exploitation and human trafficking.
"We will continue to allow organizations like Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics to use Amazon Rekognition to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families," the company said in the statement.
5. It increases pressure on Congress to regulate the technology.
Lawmakers from both parties have previously expressed interest in regulating facial recognition. The Democrats' sweeping police reform package introduced this week would prohibit the use of facial recognition on real-time body cam footage and limit the use of the technology on existing footage unless a warrant is obtained.
Previously lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee have expressed interest in pursuing bipartisan regulation. Chair Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., praised Amazon's decision to institute the moratorium. "The Oversight Committee has held multiple hearings on this issue, which revealed serious demographic problems with facial recognition technology," she said in a statement. "Those hearings have been the foundation in our efforts to formulate bipartisan legislation and provide guardrails against government overreach. We intend to introduce this legislation in the near future."
Amazon says it's willing to participate in the debate over facial recognition in Congress, but it will be challenging for lawmakers to pass meaningful reform in a heated election year as it grapples with the fallout of the pandemic and widespread racial unrest.
Privacy advocates are skeptical of that commitment from Amazon. The American Civil Liberties Union called on Amazon to press Congress to institute a blanket moratorium on the technology.
"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."