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Amazon bans police use of its facial-recognition technology for a year

Tech giant claims it has been an advocate for stronger government regulation on the ethical use of facial recognition

Amazon is implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial-recognition software following an international backlash over the e-commerce giant’s ties to law enforcement.

In a short, two-paragraph blog post announcing the decision, Amazon claimed it had been an advocate for stronger government regulation on the ethical use of facial recognition and that “in recent days, [US] Congress appears ready to take on this challenge”.

It added: “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help, if requested.”

However, Amazon said it would continue to allow some organisations to use its Rekognition software if they were working on finding missing children or preventing human trafficking – specifically naming Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics as organisations that this applied to.

In 2018, a report by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) found Amazon’s Rekognition software was fundamentally racially biased, misidentifying 28 black members of Congress during a trial conducted by the civil rights organisation.

Amazon’s announcement on 10 June comes hot on the heels of IBM’s decision to divest from the facial-recognition market earlier in the week, on the basis that the technology could be used “for mass surveillance, racial profiling and violations of basic human rights and freedoms”.

Both decisions follow mass protests in the US after the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old African-American who was killed in Minneapolis during a police arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit note.

As the protests have spread, first to every state in the US and then internationally, technology companies are coming under increased scrutiny for their contracts with law enforcement, with questions raised about their complicity in police brutality and wider institutional racism.

Before Amazon’s announcement, the company had repeatedly refused to answer questions on how its facial-recogntion software was being used by police, despite founder and CEO Jeff Bezos publicly coming out in support of the Black Lives Matter protests.

But it is unclear whether the moratorium will apply to police forces that are already using the software, and if it does, how Amazon would deal with revoking or removing their access.

Amazon did not respond to Computer Weekly’s questions about this by the time of publication.

The company is already coming under further pressure to withdraw from its other law enforcement partnerships.

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The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), for example, issued a blog post on the same day calling for Ring, Amazon’s smart home security business, to immediately end the 1,300-plus partnerships it has with US law enforcement agencies.

“Technology companies must rethink how the tools they design and sell to police departments minimise accountability and exacerbate injustice,” said EEF. “Even worse, some companies profit directly from exploiting irrational fears of crime that all too often feed the flames of police brutality.” It described Ring as “one of the worst offenders”.

EEF added: “Despite Amazon’s statement that ‘the inequitable and brutal treatment of black people in our country must stop’, Ring plays an active role in enabling and perpetuating police harassment of black Americans.”

In 2019, Vice’s Motherboard revealed that people of colour were far more likely to end up on Ring’s accompanying Neighbors app, where users can share footage and photos of “suspicious” people.

EFF said: “Ring’s surveillance doorbells and its accompanying Neighbors app have inflamed many residents’ worst instincts and urged them to spy on pedestrians, neighbours and workers. We must tell Amazon Ring to end their police partnerships today.”

It added: “Amazon built this surveillance infrastructure through tight-knit partnerships with police departments, including officers hawking Ring’s cameras to residents, and Ring telling officers how to better pressure residents to share their videos.”

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