Days after the first shots were fired in a looming UK legal battle questioning law enforcement uses of facial recognition technology, Amazon has been bombarded with a massive petition and several letters demanding it stop providing a similar technology to governments and law enforcement.
The issue first reared its head earlier in May when the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) revealed a series of documents and emails illustrating how Amazon was not only pushing its facial recognition technology, called Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies across the country, but also actively providing company resources to help deploy the systems.
Amazon's initial, and so far only, public statement regarding the issue was a brief response from a spokesperson saying, "Quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology. Imagine if customers couldn't buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?"
The latest action, spearheaded by the Washington branch of the ACLU, is set to present the company with a petition signed by over 150,000 concerned citizens, a coalition letter from almost 70 different organizations nationwide, and perhaps most powerfully, a letter co-signed by 17 shareholders. All the papers are demanding Amazon cease selling its facial recognition technology to governments and law enforcement.
"The rights of immigrants, communities of color, protestors, and others will be put at risk if Amazon provides this powerful surveillance system to government agencies," says Shankar Narayan, from the ACLU Washington branch. "Amazon should listen to community voices and protect its customers' civil liberties instead of jumping in to create a surveillance infrastructure for government."
The most fascinating strand of this new action is the pressure coming from Amazon shareholders. While that particular letter does reference questions over civil liberties, privacy and accuracy, it also suggests this issue could negatively affect the company's stock price. It is this aspect that could potentially prove the most powerful in determining how CEO Jeff Bezos responds to this ongoing problem.
"The recent experience and scrutiny of Facebook demonstrates the degree to which these new issues may undermine company value as the detrimental impacts on society become clear," the shareholders write in their letter to Bezos.
Regardless of who is right or wrong in the debate, the shareholders perhaps point out the most important factor for a giant company like Amazon. The bottom line. It's difficult to see any way out for Amazon other than pulling back on its facial recognition technology business. And with an increasingly loud conversation in democratic nations discussing the deployment of the technology, this is certainly not the last time we'll be hearing about this.
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