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Amazon rejects calls for ban on sales of facial recognition tech to government agencies

Annual meeting defeats resolutions for Amazon to halt sales of its Rekognition software to government agencies, and to do more to tackle climate change

Amazon has rejected shareholder and staff-backed calls for it to halt sales of its facial recognition software to government agencies, and do more to tackle climate change, at its annual meeting on 22 May 2019.

All 11 of the resolutions put forward in the meeting were voted down, despite many of the motions up for discussion being put forward by shareholders in the first place. A breakdown of the votes is expected to be released in the coming days.

The company’s board of directors had advised shareholders to vote against all the proposals in the proxy statement it filed ahead of the meeting, including a shareholder-backed bid for Amazon to halt sales of its facial recognition service, Rekognition, to government agencies.

In that instance, the recommendation is based on Amazon’s assertion that not a “single report” about the service being used in a harmful manner has ever been filed, despite concerns that it could be used for nefarious surveillance or racial profiling, if misappropriated.

“We recognise that users of our technology, as with any technology, may not only utilise it for beneficial purposes, but could also misuse the results generated by our technology, just as laptop computers, mobile phones or cameras can be misused,” the company said in the proxy statement filing.

“However, we do not believe that the potential for customers to misuse results generated by Amazon Rekognition should prevent us from making that technology available to our customers.”

The issue of climate change was covered off in two proposals raised ahead of the meeting. The first focused on a shareholder-backed request for Amazon to issue an annual report on the environmental and social impacts of the food waste generated by its operations, given the contribution this makes to climate change.

The second request, which again came at the behest of shareholders, urged the firm to create a report about what the company is doing to prepare for climate change, and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.

The latter point is an area where Amazon has previously come in for repeated criticism from environmental groups, including Greenpeace, with regard to how it powers some of the datacentres underpinning Amazon Web Services (AWS). 

In response to both requests, Amazon advised shareholders ahead of the meeting to vote against them on the grounds that the company is already working on initiatives that address these issues.

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The meeting was on course to be a contentious one, given the opposition Amazon has faced in recent months over its decision to permit Rekognition to be marketed to government agencies and law enforcers, despite concerns that it could be misappropriated.

As reported by Computer Weekly in January 2019, Amazon shareholders penned a two-page letter to the online retail giant’s board of directors requesting them to halt sales of the technology to government agencies until independent verification can be sought that proves that it will not contribute to human rights violations.

The company has also faced similar calls, as detailed by the New York Times, in recent weeks from artificial intelligence experts working at a number of tech firms, including Google, Microsoft and Facebook.

As far as the climate change resolutions are concerned, the company has also been criticised by its own staff, with 7,683 of them banding together as the Amazon Employees Climate Justice group to sign an open letter in April 2019 calling on the firm to vote in favour of the related proposals in the proxy statement.

During the meeting, it is understood that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos neglected to appear on stage when invited to by one of the group’s representatives, Emily Cunningham, ahead of her address to attendees about why they needed to urgently throw their weight behind the climate change proposals.

In response to the resolution being voted down, the employees group issued a statement questioning why Amazon is still continuing to burn fossil fuels, despite the impact climate change is having on the ability of its warehouses and datacentres to function, and the safety of its staff.

“The two largest proxy advisory firms in the US recommended in favour of our resolution,” the group wrote. “It is hard to understand why Jeff Bezos and the board did not. Investors recognise the risk – being a carbon polluter is both morally and financially irresponsible.”

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