Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge
Amazon is announcing a one-year moratorium on allowing law enforcement to use its controversial Rekognition facial recognition platform, the e-commerce giant said on Wednesday.
The news comes just two days after IBM said it would no longer offer, develop, or research facial recognition technology, citing potential human rights and privacy abuses and research indicating facial recognition tech, despite the advances provided by artificial intelligence, remains biased along lines of age, race, and ethnicity.
Much of the foundational work showing the flaws of modern facial recognition tech with regard to racial bias is thanks to Joy Buolamwini, a researcher at the MIT Media Lab, and Timnit Gebru, a member at Microsoft Research. Buolamwini and Gebry co-authored a widely cited paper that found error rates for facial recognition systems from major tech companies for identifying darker-skinned individuals were dozens of percentage points higher than when identifying white-skinned individuals. The issues lie in part with the data sets used to train the systems, which can be overwhelmingly male and white, according to a report from The New York Times.
Amazon did not give a concrete reason for the decision beyond calling for federal regulation of the tech, although the company says it will continue providing the software to rights organizations dedicated to missing and exploited children and combating human trafficking. The unspoken context here of course is the death of George Floyd, a black man killed by former Minnesota police officers, and ongoing protests around the US and the globe against racism and systemic police brutality.
It appears Amazon has decided that police cannot be trusted to use the technology responsibly. Although the company has never disclosed just how many police departments do actually use the tech. As of last summer, it appeared only two — one in Oregon and one in Florida — were actively using Rekognition, and Orlando has since stopped using it. It would appear a much more widely used version of facial recognition system is that of Clearview AI, a secretive company now facing down a number of privacy lawsuits after scraping social media sites for photos and building a more than 3 billion-photo database it sells to law enforcement.
Similarly, Amazon has faced constant criticism over the years for selling access to Rekognition to police departments. That’s despite artificial intelligence researchers, activists, and lawmakers citing concerns about the lack of oversight into how the tech is used in investigations and potential built-in bias that makes it unreliable and ripe for racial discrimination.
Even after employees voiced concern about the tech in 2018, Amazon’s cloud chief Andrew Jassy said the company would continue to sell it to police. Only through media reports and activists highlighting the pitfalls of police use of facial recognition tech like Rekgotninion have police departments, like Orlando’s, begun discontinuing contracts with Amazon.
Here’s Amazon’s full note on the one-year ban:
We’re implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology. 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.
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. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.