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Amazon bars police from using its facial recognition technology for a year

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Amazon will bar police from using its facial recognition technology for a year amid the nationwide protests over racial injustice and law enforcement bias.

The company said on Wednesday that it would pause selling its nearly four-year-old Rekognition service, which could be used by law enforcement to identify potential criminal suspects.

Many civil rights activists and A.I. researchers worry that A.I.-powered technology like facial recognition software is prone to bias and that it is more inaccurate when used on people of color and on women. They’re also concerned that police, some of whom have a history of racial discrimination, will use the technology to target black and Latinx neighborhoods.

“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” Amazon said in a statement. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

Amazon’s moratorium comes days after IBM said it would stop selling facial recognition technology for the foreseeable future. On Monday, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna sent a letter to Congress that called for police reform and also applauded members of the U.S. House for recently introducing legislation intended to curtail police misconduct.

A number of civil rights organizations and even some of Amazon’s investors have urged the e-commerce giant to stop selling facial recognition services to law enforcement. In 2018, The American Civil Liberties Union discovered that Amazon’s Rekognition technology matched 28 members of Congress to criminal mug shots, highlighting flaws in the service in accurately identifying people of color.

At the time, Amazon disputed the ACLU’s facial recognition tests, saying that the organization had used a setting that was too low, resulting in poor accuracy.    

Nicole Ozer, the ACLU’s technology and civil liberties director, said in a statement about Amazon’s announcement, “It took two years for Amazon to get to this point, but we’re glad the company is finally recognizing the dangers face recognition poses to Black and Brown communities and civil rights more broadly.” 

She continued: “This surveillance technology’s threat to our civil rights and civil liberties will not disappear in a year. Amazon must fully commit to a blanket moratorium on law enforcement use of face recognition until the dangers can be fully addressed, and it must press Congress and legislatures across the country to do the same.” 

Meanwhile, Evan Greer, the deputy director of advocacy group Fight for the Future, said in a statement that Amazon’s retreat is “nothing more than a public relations stunt.

“They’ll spend the next year ‘improving’ the accuracy of their facial recognition algorithms, making it even more effective as an Orwellian surveillance tool,” Greer said. “Then they’ll unleash their army of lobbyists to push for industry-friendly ‘regulations’ that assuage public concern while allowing them to profit.”

Although it will bar police, Amazon said it would continue to make its facial recognition technology available to other groups. They include the anti–human trafficking organization Thorn, the International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics, which partners with law enforcement to rescue human trafficking victims. 

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