Amazon Halts Police Use Of Its Facial Recognition Technology

Amazon announced on Wednesday that it would freeze for one year the use of its facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies.
Amazon announced on Wednesday that it would freeze for one year the use of its facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies.
Reed Saxon/AP

Amazon announced on Wednesday a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial-recognition technology, yielding to pressure from police-reform advocates and civil rights groups.

It is unclear how many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. deploy Amazon's artificial intelligence tool, but an official with the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon confirmed that it will be suspending its use of Amazon's facial recognition technology.

Researchers have long criticized the technology for producing inaccurate results for people with darker skin. Studies have also shown that the technology can be biased against women and younger people.

The announcement follows IBM indicating this week that it would quit the facial-recognition business altogether. In a letter to Congress, chief executive Arvind Krishna condemned software that is used "for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms."

Congressional Democrats are seeking to regulate the technology in sweeping police reform legislation inspired by the nationwide protests over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis after a white officer held a knee to his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The proposed bill would limit how much federal law enforcement officials could use facial recognition technology, including a ban on using the software with police body-worn cameras.

In its statement, Amazon officials say the company supports federal regulation for its algorithm-driven facial recognition software, known as Rekognition.

"We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested," the company said in a statement.

Amazon noted that authorities will still be able to use the facial recognition technology to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families.

Rekognition is part of Amazon Web Services, the tech giant's cloud computing division. It can use machine learning to rapidly compare an image captured from a person's social media account or from an officer's smartphone to look for a match from a database of hundreds of thousands of mugshots. Critics have been wary that using an algorithm to confirm who someone is can lead to cases of mistaken identity.

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director with the ACLU of Northern California, said a blanket ban on the technology is needed, but she welcomed Amazon's one-year pause, saying it shows that the company is "finally recognizing the dangers face recognition poses to black and brown communities and civil rights more broadly."

Ozer added: "Face recognition technology gives governments the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go. It fuels police abuse. This surveillance technology must be stopped."

American intelligence and military officials have long used facial recognition software in overseas anti-terrorist operations, but local and federal law enforcement agencies inside the U.S. have increasingly turned to the software as a crime-fighting tool. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has used the technology to scan millions of driver's licenses for possible matches.

One study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology demonstrated that while lighter-skin men were often almost always positively identified, about 7 percent of lighter-skin women were misidentified and up to 35 percent of darker-skinned women were falsely identified.

"With IBM's decision and Amazon's recent announcement, the efforts of so many civil liberties organizations, activists, shareholders, employees and researchers to end harmful use of facial recognition are gaining even more momentum," said Joy Buolamwini, who led the MIT study and founded the Algorithmic Justice League, which is calling for a nationwide moratorium on all government use of facial recognition technologies. "The first step is to press pause."

The ACLU, Buolamwini and other opponents of the technology are now calling on Microsoft to step away from its facial recognition services provided through the company's Azure cloud service.

"Microsoft also needs to take a stand," Buolamwini said.

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