Amazon says facial recognition tech should 'not violate civil rights'

Amazon says facial recognition tech should 'not violate civil rights'
© Getty

Amazon unveiled new proposed guidelines on Thursday for any national legislation regulating facial recognition technology following months of scrutiny over Rekognition, the tech giant's facial recognition software. 

Progressive lawmakers, civil rights groups and privacy advocates throughout last year criticized Amazon’s Rekognition contracts with law enforcement agencies, pointing out that the technology has misidentified people of color and, during one test, wrongly identified members of Congress as criminals.

ADVERTISEMENT

Amazon previously has responded by insisting that researchers had used technology incorrectly, a point reiterated in the guidelines posted on its blog Thursday. The blog post marks the most extensive response yet by Amazon to such criticisms.

"In the two-plus years we’ve been offering Amazon Rekognition, we have not received a single report of misuse by law enforcement," Amazon said in its post. "Even with this strong track record to date, we understand why people want there to be oversight and guidelines put in place to make sure facial recognition technology cannot be used to discriminate."

The proposals from Amazon focus mainly on ensuring that law enforcement uses the technology effectively and without discriminating against minorities.

"New technology should not be banned or condemned because of its potential misuse," Amazon said in the post. "Instead, there should be open, honest, and earnest dialogue among all parties involved to ensure that the technology is applied appropriately and is continuously enhanced."

Amazon said any national legislation should ensure facial recognition technology avoids the potential for discrimination, in part, by requiring human reviewers to provide oversight of law enforcement agencies using the products. Amazon is calling for similar technologies used by law enforcement to meet a "99% confidence score." 

"We support the calls for an appropriate national legislative framework that protects individual civil rights and ensures that governments are transparent in their use of facial recognition technology," the post reads.

The guidelines also call for "transparency" from law enforcement agencies using facial recognition technology, which could include a mandate that requires law enforcement to disclose when they are using it in connection with video surveillance in public places.

A group of Amazon shareholders last month filed a resolution to prohibit Amazon from selling Rekognition to government entities until the company’s board could conclude that “the technology does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights.”

Civil rights advocates and some black lawmakers have been raising concerns that the technology could contribute to racial discrimination by law enforcement and increase surveillance of marginalized communities. 

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) senior legislative counsel Neema Singh Guliani called Amazon's framework "weak" and "hollow" in a statement Thursday. She pointed out that law enforcement has previously raised concerns about the facial recognition technology, and Amazon has declined to share information on the products with Congress.

"Amazon says that face recognition should not violate the law, yet it ignores the fact that there is no law on the books authorizing its use by law enforcement at all," Giuliani said. She also noted that Amazon's 99 percent confidence threshold "does nothing to the reduce the inevitability of law enforcement using the technology to determine who attends protests, monitor immigrants, or target communities of color." 

"Amazon’s framework rings woefully hollow, underscores the company’s refusal to properly address the dangers of its technology in government hands, and reinforces the urgent need for Amazon to get out of the surveillance business altogether," she said. 

The Congressional Black Caucus also raised concerns in a letter to Amazon last year, writing, “We are troubled by the profound negative unintended consequences this form of artificial intelligence could have for African Americans, undocumented immigrants, and protesters." 

Microsoft, which has also come under fire for its facial recognition technology, last month released a similar set of guidelines to regulate the use of the sensitive technology. 

Updated: 4:55 p.m.