Policy Summary: On June 10, 2020 Amazon.com announced that they would implement a one-year moratorium on providing Rekognition to law enforcement agencies. Rekognition is Amazon’s face recognition software that allows a user to scan a crowd of persons and quickly match a photo of a person’s face to a database of people’s face photos. The next day, Microsoft announced that they would discontinue selling their own version of facial recognition technology to law enforcement departments until a federal law is passed to regulate the technology. Both of these announcements followed the announcement of IBM to completely abandon the technology as a product for sale. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
Policy Analysis: Facial recognition technology has always been controversial. This is because the technology has the ability to scan and potentially match large crowds of people who may not be engaging in illegal behavior which raises privacy issues. And in tests of the software, the software has been shown to be unreliable and prone to false matches when used against photos of persons of color. There have been calls to Congress to try and implement legislation that would regulate and limit the use of the software but nothing has been enacted. There have also been similar calls to Amazon to discontinue sales of the software to law enforcement agencies but Amazon ignored those calls.
Until now. In the aftermath of the protests due to the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor killings and the ongoing national discussion of police reform, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM have all issued statements regarding the future of their facial recognition software products. IBM is the only company of the three to announce that they will discontinue offering their software because of the potential for “mass surveillance and racial profiling.” Amazon and Microsoft’s decision represents a holding pattern – Amazon putting on hold sales to law enforcement for a year while Microsoft suspending sales while being more vocal in calling for federal legislation to regulate the technology.
On the surface these are steps in the right direction but any of these companies could have taken these steps the last couple of years. They refused. It was only because of the eruption of police reform protests that finally got the companies to change their tune. Amazon’s decision is only for one year which implies that they will simply go back to selling their product once the protests have simmered down. In addition, Amazon’s announcement states that their product is still being sold to groups that are not traditional law enforcement such as missing children’s groups. A moratorium on sales of Rekognition to law enforcement does not change the fact that other groups are still using the software. This action also does not mention how Amazon’s Ring service will be affected. Ring is a doorbell monitor that allows users and third – parties to view remotely video of a user’s front door. Even though controversial, Amazon and Ring have recently partnered with local law enforcement to give those police departments access to videos from the app which can be used to bypass search warrant requirements and again raises issues of privacy.
If these big tech companies want to implement more meaningful change in the controversial realm of smart policing, they need to look at all aspects of the field instead of simply halting sales for a limited time. Some of the best suggestions include making the software more available for independent third party testing, court approval before police can use it and a ban on use if a constitutional right such as free speech or a protest is in progress. What these tech companies have announced is a move in the right direction but there is more that can be done. LEARN MORE, LEARN MORE
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) – press release on Amazon’s decision to halt sales of Rekognition.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) – blog post on decision by tech companies halting sales for now of facial recognition technology.
This brief was compiled by Rod Maggay. If you have comments or want to add the name of your organization to this brief, please contact Rod@USResistnews.org.