Amazon shareholders demand halt in sales of image recognition tech to US government

Amazon shareholders want its board of directors to halt sales of its image recognition service to US law enforcers unless it can independently verify it's not being misused

Amazon shareholders are calling on the company to stop selling its cloud-based facial recognition software to government agencies on the grounds it could put people’s civil liberties at risk.

In a two-page missive, its shareholders claim the company has provided “little evidence” sales of its Rekognition service are being regulated to protect against it being used by organisations to facilitate racial profiling and nefarious surveillance, for example.

The image analysis technology made its debut in December 2016 at the cloud giant’s annual Re: Invent customer and partner conference, and – along with other similar tools – has found itself subject to misuse concerns from civil liberties and human rights activities. Particularly when deployed by government agencies and law enforcement bodies.

In light of these concerns, shareholders are urging Amazon’s board of directors to stop selling the software to government agencies unless it can provide independent evidence that it does not “cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights”, the letter states.

It also claims the technology is being “marketed” at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), who are already known to be using other parts of AWS’s wider cloud portfolio, and has been piloted by police forces in Florida and Oregon.

The letter’s creation has been organised by non-profit open internet campaigners Open Mic, who claim Rekognition’s ability to identify individuals from images and videos has proven to be biased, inaccurate and dangerous in some tests.

It also claims the content of the letter is supported by “hundreds” of Amazon employees, and 150,000 people who have signed a petition calling for sales of Rekognition to government agencies to be stopped.

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Michael Connor, executive director of Open Mic, said the action is necessary to protect the company and its investors.

“It’s a familiar pattern: a leading tech company marketing what is hailed as breakthrough technology without understanding or assessing the many real and potential harms of that product,” said Connor.

“Sales of Rekognition to government represent considering risk for the company and investors. That’s why it’s imperative those sales be halted immediately.”

It is understood the contents of the letter will be voted on during Amazon’s annual meeting, which is taking place in Spring 2019.

Computer Weekly contacted AWS for comment on this story, and was directed to a blog post authored by Matt Wood, general manager of deep learning and artificial intelligence (AI), in 2018, where he directly addresses concerns about the potential for Rekognition to be misused.

It outlines the firm’s commitment to addressing concerns about how its technologies are used through its acceptable use policy. This states that any organisation that falls foul of this policy will lose access to its services.

The firm previously severed ties with whistle-blowing website Wikileaks on similar grounds in 2010, citing the fact the firm was using its services to host content that does not belong to it.

Material benefits

In the post, Wood goes on to discuss the “material benefits” Rekognition is bringing to society, from an educational and security perspective, and how it is being used to help prevent human trafficiking and child exploitation.

“AWS takes its responsibilities seriously. But we believe it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future,” wrote Wood.

“The world would be a very different place if we had restricted people from buying computers because it was possible to use that computer to do harm.

“The same can be said of thousands of technologies upon which we all rely each day,” he said. “Through responsible use, the benefits have far outweighed the risks.”

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