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Amazon under greater shareholder pressure to limit sale of facial recognition tech to the government

This week could mark a significant setback for Amazon’s facial recognition business if privacy and civil liberties advocates — and some shareholders — get their path.

Months earlier, shareholders tabled a resolution to maximum the sale to law enforcement and government agencies Amazon’s facial recognition tech, named
Rekognition
. It followed accusations of bias and inaccuracies with the technology, which they say can be used to racially discriminate against minorities. Rekognition, which runs graphic and video analysis of faces, has been sold to two states so far, and Amazon has pitched Immigration and Customs Enforcement. a second resolution will demand a private humankind and civil rights review of the technology.

Now the ACLU is backing the measures and calling on shareholders to pass the resolutions.

“Amazon has stayed the course,” said Shankar Narayan, director of the Technology and Liberty Project at the ACLU Washington, in a call Friday. “Amazon has heard repeatedly about the dangers to our democracy and vulnerable communities about this technology but they have refused to acknowledge those dangers, let alone address them,” he said.

“Amazon has been so non-responsive to these concerns,” said Narayan, “even Amazon’s own shareholders have been forced to resort to putting these proposals addressing those concerns on the poll.”

It’s the latest move in a concerted effort by dozens of shareholders and investment firms, tech experts and academics, and privacy and rights groups and organizations who have decried the use of the technology.

Critics say Amazon Rekognition has accuracy and bias issues (graphic: TechCrunch)

In a letter to be presented at Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, the ACLU will accuse Amazon of “failing to act responsibly” by refusing to stop the sale of the technology to the government.

“This technology fundamentally alters the balance of energy between government and individuals, arming governments with unprecedented energy to track, regulate, and damage people,” said the letter, shared with TechCrunch. “It would enable police officer to instantaneously and automatically determine the identities and locations of people going about their daily lives, allowing government agencies to routinely track their own residents. Associated app may even display risky and likely inaccurate information to police officer about a person’s emotions or state of mind.”

“As shown by a long history of other surveillance technologies, face surveillance is certain to be disproportionately aimed at immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, activists, and other vulnerable communities,” the letter added.

“Without shareholder action, Amazon may soon become known more for its role in facilitating pervasive government surveillance than for its consumer retail operations,” it read.

Facial recognition has become one of the most hot-button topics in privacy in years. Amazon Rekognition, its cloud-based facial recognition system, remains in its infancy, yet one of the most prominent and available systems available. But critics say the technology is flawed. Exactly a year prior to this week’s shareholder meeting, the ALCU first raised “profound” concerns with Rekognition and its installation at airports, public places and by police officer. Since then, the technology was shown to struggle to detect people of color. In its tests, the system struggled to match 28 congresspeople who were falsely matched in a mugshot database who had been previously arrested.

But there has been pushback — even from government. Several municipalities have rolled out surveillance-curtailing laws and ordinances in the past year. San Francisco last week became the first major U.S. city government to ban the use of facial recognition.

“Amazon leadership has failed to recognize these issues,” said the ACLU’s letter to be presented Wednesday. “This failure will govern to real-life damage.”

The ACLU said shareholders “have the energy to defend Amazon from its own failed judgment.”

Amazon has pushed back against the claims by arguing that the technology is specific — largely by criticizing how the ACLU conducted its tests using Rekognition.

Amazon spokesperson Lauren Lynch said Tuesday that the company operates “in line with our code of conduct which governs how we run our business and the use of our products.”

Updated with comment from Amazon.

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