Dem reps seek answers on Amazon facial recognition technology

Dem reps seek answers on Amazon facial recognition technology
© Greg Nash

Two Democratic lawmakers on Friday expressed concern with Amazon’s facial recognition and artificial intelligence software, Rekognition, and the potential harms it could impose on people of color.

Reps. Keith EllisonKeith Maurice EllisonEllison accuser: Dems 'smeared, threatened, isolated' me Kavanaugh becomes September surprise for midterm candidates Trump Jr., Dem congressman spar over Ellison's association with Farrakhan MORE (D-Minn.) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) in a letter pressed the technology giant for more answers about how Rekognition, which came to light this week in an American Civil Liberties Union report, is being used by law enforcement agencies.

“A series of studies have shown that face recognition technology is consistently less accurate in identifying the faces of African-Americans and women as compared to Caucasians and men,” Ellison and Cleaver note in their letter.

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“The disproportionally high arrest rates for members of the black community make the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement problematic because it could serve to reinforce this trend,” they continued.

The two lawmakers included a series of 12 questions asking Amazon to detail which law enforcement agencies, besides ones previously reported, are using the technology and if there are private sector users and what steps, if any, Amazon has taken to test for racial biases in the software.

"This issue is very simple: Our leading private sector companies should not become for-profit law-enforcement officials,” Cleaver told The Hill. “There should be no profit motive whatsoever for companies Americans rely on for everyday goods and services to be able to make money to report those Americans to the police."

Cleaver has previously voiced concerns about unintended consequences of artificial intelligence (AI), pressing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to probe financial technology companies on possible bias in their lending algorithms and calling for the tech industry to be more diverse to better address AI bias generally.

Ellison and Cleaver’s letter comes one day after Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondState Department: Allegations of racism 'disgusting and false' Congressional Black Caucus says Kavanaugh would weaken Voting Rights Act protections Democrats move to limit role of superdelegates in presidential nominations MORE (D-La.) on behalf of the CBC sent a letter to Amazon, also noting concern with the implications of its technology. 

A spokesperson for Amazon Web Services (AWS) defended Rekognition on Wednesday in a statement to The Hill, saying that it is not a tool for surveillance and argued that it is merely used to match images from pictures or video with those in a database. 

"Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology," the spokesperson said in defense of the technology. "Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?", the spokesperson said.

--Updated at 10:10 a.m.