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Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Amazon suspends police access to its facial recognition technology. But only for one year.

An Amazon logo on the back of a Black Lives Matter protest sign. An Amazon logo at an anti police brutality protest on June 2 in New York City. | Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

The announcement will likely turn attention to federal lawmakers as well as other companies selling the technology.

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In a statement released on Wednesday, Amazon announced that the company would institute a one-year moratorium on police use of Rekognition, the company’s facial recognition software. The move follows IBM’s announcement earlier this week that IBM would no longer offer facial recognition products, citing the technology’s potential for abuse or misuse. As scrutiny of law enforcement ramps up, it looks as though there could be a referendum on the surveillance tools police can access.

This is certainly a sign that the needle of public acceptance of facial recognition is moving. Amazon’s Rekognition technology specifically has been called out by critics, like AI researchers Joy Buolamwini and Deborah Raji, who have shown how it can be rife with racial and gender bias. Despite its initial pushback from the company on their work, Amazon is now reconsidering its plan for Rekognition.

“We’re implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology,” the company now says. “We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

Notably, Amazon carved out exceptions to the moratorium. The company said it will continue to allow organizations that fight human trafficking and find missing children to use the technology.

Launched in 2016, Amazon’s Rekognition software is part of the company’s cloud computing division, Amazon Web Services (AWS). In 2018, research from the ACLU found that Amazon’s Rekognition incorrectly matched the faces of 28 lawmakers with other people who had been arrested. Activists have also warned repeatedly that wide-scale use of facial recognition can violate privacy rights and exacerbate surveillance. Yet the exact details of how Rekognition is being used by law enforcement remains unclear. While we know of a few examples of police departments that have tested the technology, AWS chief executive Andy Jassy told the press earlier this year that the company doesn’t know the number of departments that have used Rekognition or how they’re using it.

The call for regulation shouldn’t be surprising. There is currently no comprehensive federal law governing facial recognition, and localities have taken up the task themselves of regulating the technology. Amazon has previously floated its own recommendations for how it believes facial recognition ought to be regulated, and like many other facial recognition providers, the company also wants to avoid patchwork regulation that means different laws exist in different states. Meanwhile, critics of facial recognition technology have warned that corporate calls for regulation should be met with skepticism, as companies can push laws that are weak and ultimately defend their interests.

Still, that two major companies have announced the scaling back of this technology is notable and could be a sign that norms surrounding facial recognition are changing. Eyes will now likely turn to other companies that sell the tech, as well as to federal lawmakers, who have now been given an informal deadline by one of the world’s largest companies.

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