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Amazon has banned official use of their facial recognition software, on the basis that the US Congress will outline ethical use of the technology.
Last week corporate giant Amazon announced that it was putting a one-year pause on letting the police use its facial recognition tool, hoping that the moratorium “might give Congress enough time to put in place appropriate rules” for the ethical use of the technology.
In the past, Amazon’s technology, Rekognition, has been criticised for misidentifying people of colour, and given that the change has come about at a time when nationwide protests in the United States over racism and biased policing are occurring, one can safely assume that might have something to do with it.
The announcement comes as a surprise given how big of a supplier the company has been of facial recognition software to law enforcement, and considering that, more so than other companies, Amazon has resisted previous calls to slow its deployment of such technology.
Amazon is not alone. Prior to their announcement, IBM said it would halt the sale of facial recognition products. Last year, Axon, the leading maker of police body cameras, banned the use of facial recognition on its products at the recommendation of its independent ethics board. Google has advocated a temporary ban on the technology.
The American Civil Liberties Union applauded Amazon in a statement for “finally recognizing the dangers face recognition poses to Black and Brown communities and civil rights more broadly.” The union did add, however, that Amazon should extend the moratorium on law enforcement use of its system until Congress passed a law regulating the technology.
For the past two years, the ACLU has spearheaded a campaign pushing Amazon to stop selling the technology to law enforcement agencies. They were able to obtain documents, using open information laws, from police departments that shone a light on just how aggressively Amazon was marketing its technology to law enforcement.
Civil liberties groups warn that the technology can and will be used at a distance to covertly identify individuals at protests, potentially compromising the right to free speech, or even simply limiting said individuals’ ability to go about their business anonymously in public.
“Face recognition technology gives governments the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go,” said Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties director for the ACLU of Northern California. “It fuels police abuse. This surveillance technology must be stopped.”
Law enforcement utilises facial recognition technology to identify criminal suspects as well as missing children by matching facial pattern data extracted from photos and videos with those in databases such as driver’s licence records. In fact, the authorities were able to identify the suspect of a mass shooting in Annapolis, Maryland last year with the help of the facial recognition technology.
However, civil liberties groups warn that the technology can and will be used at a distance to covertly identify individuals at protests, potentially compromising the right to free speech, or even simply limiting said individuals’ ability to go about their business anonymously in public. San Francisco and other cities have banned such technology over these fears.