Lawmakers sound alarm over Amazon face recognition software
A growing number of Democratic lawmakers and civil libertarians are voicing concerns about Amazon’s facial recognition software, worrying that it could be misused.
They fear that without proper oversight the technology could hurt minority or poor communities and allow police to ramp up surveillance.
The software, known by the name Rekognition, matches images of faces from video and photos with those in a database.
Amazon is defending the software, saying it is a useful tool for law enforcement and dismissing claims that it can be used for unauthorized surveillance.
But critics are raising questions and calling for more safeguards after an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) chapter obtained hundreds of pages of documents showing Amazon offering the software to law enforcement agencies across the country.
In a Tuesday report, the group called Amazon’s facial recognition project a threat to civil liberties.
The ACLU highlighted how Rekognition could scan a massive database and quickly identify up to 100 people at once and track and monitor individuals in public places such as airports or even at protests.
Democratic lawmakers have seized on the report and questioned the implications facial recognition technology could have on communities of color.
“We are troubled by the profound negative unintended consequences this form of artificial intelligence could have for African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and protesters,” Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) wrote in a letter to Amazon.
Richmond cited studies showing that communities of color are often disproportionately policed. He said that meant such groups would be most affected by any new technology used by law enforcement.
In a separate letter, Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) also voiced reservations with the technology. They asked Amazon questions about who is using Rekognition and whether the company had conducted any tests for potential racial bias in the software.
“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 wrote in their letter.
“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 added.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) put it more succinctly during a hearing last March.
“If you’re black, you’re more likely to be subjected to this technology and the technology is more likely to be wrong,” he said. “That’s a hell of a combination.”
Civil liberties advocates are pointing to research to back up their concerns.
Studies like Georgetown Law Center’s Perpetual Lineup and a Government Accountability Office report on face recognition technology, show that facial recognition technology is not equally accurate across races. Though those two studies are several years old, a more recent survey of facial recognition software also raises concerns about how well the technology works with different races.
Democratic lawmakers are particularly troubled by the idea that the software could be used to target certain groups.
In his letter, Richmond noted the FBI’s interest in “Black Identity Extremists,” the agency’s term for black activists on racial justice issues. He called the FBI’s terminology “irresponsible,” and said it’s an indicator of law enforcement’s “high propensity for misuse” of such technology.
Black lawmakers aren’t the only ones sounding the alarm about Amazon’s Rekognition technology.
In a tweet on Wednesday, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who represents Silicon Valley, wrote that he found it “troubling that Amazon is providing police departments with surveillance technology that could be easily abused without any public oversight.”
Despite the proliferation of facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence systems in police departments across the U.S., the government has been slow to take steps to prevent potential misuse.
Georgetown researchers suspect that police departments have already improperly used the technology as evidence in cases. In one pending case, they believe facial recognition technology provided the sole piece of evidence, something that even companies that make facial recognition technology have warned against.
But Amazon has pushed back on the criticism of Rekognition.
The company says it believes that the benefits of the technology outweigh just the possibility of misuse. And they forcefully dismiss the idea that it is a surveillance tool.
“Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology,” an Amazon spokesperson told The Hill. “Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?”
The spokesperson added that Amazon requires customers using their products to comply with the law when using their services and suspends them when they don’t.
Some lawmakers think that’s not good enough.
“This issue is very simple, our leading private sector companies should not become for-profit law enforcement officials. There should be no profit motive whatsoever for companies,” Cleaver told The Hill.
“These technologies continue to raise serious privacy concerns for law-abiding citizens who are just living their lives,” Rep. Robin Kelly (D-Ill.) said in a statement to The Hill. “This is America, not The Minority Report.”
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