Amazon shareholders push to halt facial recognition contracts with police

Amazon shareholders push to halt facial recognition contracts with police
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A group of Amazon shareholders are trying to prevent the company from selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies out of concern for the technology’s impact on civil liberties.

Shareholders filed a resolution Thursday to prohibit selling Amazon’s facial recognition software, known as Rekognition, to government entities until the company’s board looks into its potential use and finds that “the technology does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights.”

“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 Michael Connor, the executive director of Open MIC, a nonprofit trying to encourage shareholder activism at tech companies.

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“Sales of Rekognition to government represent considerable risk for the company and investors. That’s why it’s imperative those sales be halted immediately,” Connor said.

The resolution was filed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, a member of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment.

Black lawmakers, civil rights groups and privacy activists have criticized Amazon’s contracts with law enforcement agencies for Rekognition out of concern for the technology’s accuracy and how it could be abused by police.

When asked for comment, a spokeswoman for Amazon pointed to the company’s previous blog posts addressing criticism against the program. Amazon Web Services (AWS), the subsidiary developing the technology, has argued that Rekognition is reliable and that its law enforcement clients are subject to a strict user policy.

“AWS takes its responsibilities seriously,” Matt Wood, the general manager of artificial intelligence at the company, wrote in a June blog post. “But we believe 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. The world would be a very different place if we had restricted people from buying computers because it was possible to use that computer to do harm.”

But critics say the implications of police use of Rekognition needs to be fully explored.

Mary Beth Gallagher, the executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, said in a statement the software in the hands of the government “may lead to increased targeted surveillance of people of color, immigrants, and activists, and risks causing human rights and civil rights violations, including of privacy and First Amendment rights.”

“Our proposal encourages Amazon to prohibit future sales of its Rekognition software to government agencies until the company has fully evaluated actual and potential human rights impacts of this technology,” Gallagher said.