Shareholders pressure Amazon to stop selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement

Community leaders asked Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to police at the company’s Seattle headquarters last June. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon shareholders have filed a resolution asking the company to stop selling its facial recognition software to government agencies until the board has determined that the technology doesn’t pose risks to civil and human rights.

The shareholders backing the resolution hold $1.32 billion in Amazon assets, according to Open MIC a non-profit that organized the initiative.

Amazon first introduced its image recognition service in 2016 and enhanced it to handle video recognition at AWS re:Invent 2017. The company says Rekognition “provides highly accurate facial analysis and facial recognition.”

Civil rights activists, including the American Civil Liberties Union, question the accuracy of the technology and worry it can be used to disproportionately target communities of color. Law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Florida have piloted Rekognition.

In addition to activists, high-profile tech leaders and hundreds of Amazon employees have spoken out against the practice over the past year. Now Amazon shareholders are adding their voices to the chorus.

“It’s a familiar pattern: a leading tech company marketing what is hailed as breakthrough technology without understanding or assessing the many real and potential harms of that product,” said Open MIC Executive Director Michael Connor in a statement. “Sales of Rekognition to government represent considerable risk for the company and investors. That’s why it’s imperative those sales be halted immediately.”

Matt Wood, general manager of artificial intelligence for Amazon Web Services, has made the case for selling Rekognition to law enforcement in a series of blog posts.

“We have seen customers use the image and video analysis capabilities of Amazon Rekognition in ways that materially benefit both society (e.g. preventing human trafficking, inhibiting child exploitation, reuniting missing children with their families, and building educational apps for children), and organizations (enhancing security through multi-factor authentication, finding images more easily, or preventing package theft),” he wrote last June.

Wood acknowledged that “there have always been and will always be risks with new technology capabilities,” but said, “it is the wrong approach to impose a ban on promising new technologies because they might be used by bad actors for nefarious purposes in the future.”

This isn’t the first time Amazon shareholders have used their power to make a political statement. In December, more than a dozen employees filed a shareholder resolution urging Amazon to detail its plans to reduce fossil fuel dependence and deal with weather events and disruptions that result from the planet warming.

The shareholders behind the Rekognition resolution expect it to be voted on at Amazon’s annual meeting in the spring.

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