Amazon to block police use of facial recognition for a year

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Amazon to block police use of facial recognition for a year

While new laws are brokered.

Amazon is putting a year-long “moratorium” on police use of its Rekognition facial recognition technology.

“We’re implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology,” the company said on its dayone blog.

“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.”

A police reform bill currently before the US Congress would tighten the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement agencies.

Timnit Gebru, a leader of Google’s ethical artificial intelligence team, said in the New York Times that facial recognition use by law enforcement “should be banned at the moment”.

Gebru is one of the researchers behind an influential 2018 paper that “demonstrated both skin-type and gender biases … [in] three commercially released facial-analysis programs from major technology companies”.

Amazon said it would still allow certain specific uses of Rekognition to enforce laws around human trafficking.

“We will continue to allow organisations like Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics to use Amazon Rekognition to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families,” it said.

Amazon’s move came after IBM CEO Arvind Krishna sent a letter to Congress pulling “general purpose facial recognition or analysis software.” 

“IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and principles of rrust and transparency,” Krishna wrote.

“We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies.”

Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University's Center on Privacy and Technology, tweeted that “while this is a great statement, it won’t really change police access to [facial recognition”, mainly because IBM is not the largest player in the space. Major players included NEC and Idemia, she added.

The action on facial recognition comes amid broader protests in the US sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police.

Dr Jathan Sadowski, a research fellow in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University, said that "moratoriums and stronger regulation are a step in the right direction, but what is really needed are policies for banning facial recognition altogether."

"It's much easier and more ethical to ban facial recognition than it is to try to create 'best practices' for 'ethical use' of technology as dangerous as facial recognition," Sadowski said.

“Amazon does, and still will, provide facial recognition services, as well as other surveillance infrastructure, to a wide range of non-policing organisations. So this moratorium is only a temporary pause for one of its major institutional users.

“Like with IBM exiting the facial recognition market earlier this week, this decision by Amazon is not an altruistic gesture. Rather it's a calculated business decision and should be treated as such.

"While it's doing more than the hollow marketing push about Black Lives Matter by every company right now, it is ultimately in the same vein of action. 

“For justice activists and regulatory advocates, I see this not so much as winning a battle, but as an opportunity to go on the offensive and actually extract real and lasting victories from the policing-industrial complex.”

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