Amazon Echoes Microsoft’s Call For Regulation of Facial Recognition Technology

Amazon has previously pushed back on critique of its facial recognition software,  but it seems public pressure may have caused the company to switch up. In a recent blog post, Amazon asked Congress to develop legislation around the use of facial recognition technology.

In the post, Michael Punke, vice president of global public policy at Amazon’s cloud division, AWS, outlined areas where policy surrounding facial recognition technology could be improved, especially when used by police. Punke wrote that the company “supports the creation of a national legislative framework covering facial recognition through video and photographic monitoring on public or commercial premises.”

The post comes after Microsoft’s call for federal action on facial recognition in a December speech by Brad Smith, the company’s president. Smith suggested that companies allow assessment from independent third parties through APIs to test their facial recognition technologies for unfair bias and accuracy.

Amazon’s call also comes after the company faced immense backlash when documents obtained by the ACLU of Northern California revealed that Rekognition, the company’s facial recognition AI,  is currently used by police in Orlando and Oregon. Amazon has also pitched its facial recognition technology to US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Previous studies have highlighted that Rekognition is less than accurate, especially when it comes to Black people. In January, researchers found that attempts to determine the gender of people in photos, separate from the facial recognition service, are way less accurate for Black women. The ACLU tested Rekognition using images of members of congress and found it incorrectly matched 28 of them in a collection of mugshots. Most of the mismatches were people of color including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Amazon pushed back against those studies, claiming researchers were not using the program properly. Although law enforcement have come forward to say they use the program similar to the researchers, Punke repeated the defense adding, “facial recognition is actually a very valuable tool for improving accuracy and removing bias.”

“Over the past several months, we’ve talked to customers, researchers, academics, policymakers, and others to understand how to best balance the benefits of facial recognition with the potential risks,” Punke wrote in the blog post, “It’s critical that any legislation protect civil rights while also allowing for continued innovation and practical application of the technology.”

Punke went on to claim Amazon has received no reports of Rekognition’s misuse by law enforcement agencies. However, Wired reported that Georgetown University research has found many agencies don’t have checks and balances or audits on their use of technology.

Amazon may be calling for federal legislation now, but it only comes after the company already profited by selling Rekognition to law enforcement agencies. Although President Trump is expected to sign a new executive order launching the American Artificial Intelligence (AI) Initiative today, the order says nothing about federal regulation of facial recognition services.