Computers

Amazon under pressure to stop selling facial recognition tech to police

Amazon under pressure to stop ...
Amazon is under increasing pressure from civil rights groups and shareholders to stop selling its facial recognition technology (not pictured) to local police
Amazon is under increasing pressure from civil rights groups and shareholders to stop selling its facial recognition technology (not pictured) to local police
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Amazon is under increasing pressure from civil rights groups and shareholders to stop selling its facial recognition technology (not pictured) to local police
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Amazon is under increasing pressure from civil rights groups and shareholders to stop selling its facial recognition technology (not pictured) to local police

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.

While the UK and the US are beginning to debate potential privacy issues surrounding the growing deployment of these facial recognition systems, China is racing ahead, incorporating them into a variety of public sectors, from police surveillance to schools.

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.

Source: ACLU

8 comments
Daishi
Telling Amazon to pull the technology is probably not the right approach to stopping it. If skilled private sector tech companies sit out these contracts all that will happen is they will be replaced by defense contractors who focus on being awarded massive and very lucrative government contracts that are sometimes awarded under questionable circumstances with secretive no bid contracts to great expense of taxpayers. Politicians would have to hire DoD contractors to develop replacement technology by picking companies out of a hat based on who they know or who they golf with limited chance of getting a working alpha in return for millions in investment. Fracturing this would lead to a duplication of effort with multiple government agencies all separately funding their own mediocre runs at it in a massively expensive duplication of effort. For the sake of my tax dollars I would much prefer complex software development remain in the hands of people already demonstrating some level of success at it. If you don't want the government buying this technology that's who you should take the issue up with it it will just result in more expense to the taxpayer paying companies that specialize in DoD contracts who's investors would laugh at the idea of turning away money. The DC lobbyists for those companies are probably involved in trying to convince Amazon to pull out of the market just so they can swoop in.
CAVUMark
Anyone watch Person Of Interest? ....An ex-assassin and a wealthy programmer save lives via a surveillance AI that sends them the identities of civilians involved in impending crimes. However, the details of the crimes--including the civilians' roles--are left a mystery. As is our future.
paul314
These kinds of system solidify existing prejudices by putting "looks like a known terrorist/criminal" into algorithms with false-positive rates that are not good in the real world.
Mike Vidal
Anything to help catch criminals is something that left here in the US fights to stifle it. I'm all for anything that catches miscreants in the streets. Don't want to do the time, don't do the crime.
Expanded Viewpoint
All of the results of this spying on us is passed into the legal system, right? But since the legal system is now 100% corrupted and commits the very crimes it is supposed to protect us from, where does it get any kind of authority to act? What is the EXACT amount of fraud that ANY man or woman has the right to commit or obligation to endure? Once fraud has been exposed, all it came into contact with is voided!! Governments are nothing but highly organized crime syndicates now, robbing from everyone they can with "civil asset forfeitures" and near blank check shootings of innocent people!! I have seen photos of a man's face that was washed out in the CCD of a digital camera by shining infra red LEDs onto it. The LEDs were mounted under the bill of a base ball cap and the battery pack was located under the dome of the cap. I can see hats making a come back now for the ones who want to remain out of the camera's stare. Or will it be against the law to wear a hat with a veil on it or LEDs under the brim? Randy
EZ
Maybe the populous could use it to monitor the government. Kind of a balance of power setup. As far as defense contracts, they probably already have it. As far as our tax money is concerned, we have zero control over how it gets spent. Much of it goes to bribe our paid representatives in our government in the for of kickbacks by lobbyists. Our government is controlled by our own money that's in the hands of the people that make our weapons of mass destruction. What a deal!
Upsizers
It is interesting that there are shareholders lobbying against a revenue source. At the current share price and earnings per share, it would take 54 years to recoup an investment in Amazon. The only way these shareholders can hope to get a return on investment is for the company to grow revenue fast enough to entice a more gullible individual to buy their shares at an even more exorbitant price. Maybe these shareholders should lobby Amazon to sell tulip bulbs instead of cutting edge technology.
Nik
''BIG BROTHER'' is alive, and growing rapidly! The UK is one of the most surveillanced countries in the world. Wherever you drive, you're on camera. A road tax disk is no longer required, because wherever you go, your registration plate is videoed, and checked with the central computer, automatically. The same applies to insurance and the annual mechanical test. 'Average speed' cameras can check your speed between two points, and then send out a fine automatically using the same technology. Luckily, the cops dont normally carry guns, so 'ritual murders' by police are few, but still happen. Powerful CCTV cameras have proliferated, uncontrolled, and have been abused. One couple found a video of themselves in their bathroom, on the internet. The perpetrators were found and prosecuted, but that's only because a friend recognised them. AI surveillance is a whole new level of intrusion. I voted for my country, with my feet, I emigrated!