Lawmaker questions Amazon over facial recognition amid protests

  • Amazon
  • Thursday, 18 Jun 2020

Amazon along with International Business Machines Corp and Microsoft Corp announced last week they would stop – in some cases just temporarily – selling facial-recognition software to law enforcement. — AFP Relaxnews

A House lawmaker in the United States is pressing Inc’s Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos to reveal more details about the company’s plans to pause selling facial-recognition software to law enforcement.

Representative Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat, wrote Bezos in a letter dated June 16 that Amazon should say whether it will stop developing its facial-recognition system during its one-year moratorium on police use of the software. Amazon along with International Business Machines Corp and Microsoft Corp announced last week they would stop – in some cases just temporarily – selling facial-recognition software to law enforcement.

The California representative also asked Amazon to explain whether the moratorium applies to both local and federal law enforcement agencies such as the US Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and whether current contracts with police forces will also be paused.

"While I am encouraged by the direction Amazon appears to be taking on this issue, the ambiguity of the announcement raises more questions than answers,” Gomez wrote.

Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud-computing group, in 2016 released Rekognition, a software service designed to identify objects in still images and video, including the ability to match a face with images in a database without taking the time to manually compare images.

Gomez’s letter raises pressure on Amazon as lawmakers reexamine law enforcement’s use of facial recognition in the wake of widespread protests over police brutality and racial bias after a white officer killed an unarmed Black man, George Floyd.

Congress has been concerned that the technology is more likely to misidentify minorities and could infringe on Americans’ privacy and civil rights. Industry advocates argue that facial-recognition tools help police departments find missing people and catch criminals, among other potential uses.

So far, Congress has offered a smattering of bills aimed at regulating facial-recognition technology and uses, but few have gained traction. The House Oversight Committee has been holding hearings on the topic and lawmakers are working on a broad bill aimed at setting limits on how the government deploys the software.

Last week, Democrats proposed a sweeping police reform bill that included a provision to block federal use of real-time facial recognition analysis of police body camera footage. Republicans unveiled their own police-reform measure June 17, but lawmakers are still far from passing a comprehensive bill on facial recognition.

"I am also troubled by the one-year expiration of the moratorium and how Amazon will proceed in the event federal legislation is not signed into law within this self-imposed-timeframe,” Gomez wrote.

Gomez has been a longtime critic of Amazon’s facial-recognition product. He previously sent the company letters seeking clarification on how it has marketed facial recognition to ICE and intelligence agencies, how the company implements privacy protections and the program’s accuracy.

In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union tested Amazon software on members of Congress and found it falsely matched 28 of them with mugshots, disproportionately selecting minority lawmakers including Gomez. Amazon claimed that those studies didn’t accurately reflect the capabilities of its software.

"Knowing that people of colour, especially Black people, Latinos, our interactions with the police often can lead to violence and a hostile interaction,” Gomez said in an interview. "What happens to somebody who is mistaken as felon? It can lead to a life changing event or result in death.” – Bloomberg

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