NEW YORK (AP) – Amazon banned the use of facial recognition technology by the police for a year, making it the latest technology giant to renounce the police’s use of systems that have been criticized for misidentifying people with darker skin tones .
The Seattle-based company did not say why it was taking action now. Persistent protests after George Floyd’s death have drawn attention to racial injustice in the United States and how police are using technology to track people down. Floyd died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee to the black man’s cuffed neck for several minutes, even after Floyd stopped moving and begged for air.
Law enforcement agencies use facial recognition to identify suspects, but critics say it can be exploited. A number of U.S. cities have banned use by police and other government agencies, led by San Francisco last year. On Tuesday, IBM said it would end facial recognition, worrying about how the technology could be used for mass surveillance and racial profiling.
It is not clear whether the ban on police use also includes federal law enforcement agencies. Amazon did not respond to questions about the announcement.
Civil rights organizations and Amazon’s own employees have prompted the company to stop selling the technology, called Rekognition, to government agencies because it can be used to violate privacy and attack people of color.
In a blog post Wednesday, Amazon said it hoped Congress would introduce stricter rules for facial recognition.
“Amazon’s decision is an important symbolic step, but it doesn’t really change the facial recognition landscape in the United States, as it’s not a major player,” said Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology. Her public record investigation found that only two U.S. agencies used or tested Rekognition.
Orlando police tested it, but chose not to run it, she said. The Sheriff’s Office in Washington County, Oregon was most public about the use of Rekognition, but said after Amazon’s announcement Wednesday that it was suspending use of facial recognition indefinitely.
Studies led by MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini found racial and gender differences in facial recognition software. Those findings spurred Microsoft and IBM to improve their systems, but irritated Amazon, which publicly attacked its research methods last year. A group of scientists in the field of artificial intelligence, including a computer science grand prize winner, launched a spirited defense of its work last year and called on Amazon to stop selling facial recognition software to the police.
A study by a US agency last year confirmed concerns about the flaws of the technology. The National Institute of Standards and Technology tested leading facial recognition systems – although not from Amazon, which did not submit the algorithms – and found that they often performed unevenly based on a person’s race, gender, or age.
Buolamwini called Amazon’s announcement Wednesday “a welcomed but unexpected announcement.”
“Microsoft also needs to take a stand,” she wrote in an email statement. More importantly, our legislators need to go a step further to counter harmful implementations of the technologies.
Microsoft has spoken out about the need to regulate facial recognition to prevent human rights abuses, but has not said it would not sell it to law enforcement officers. The company did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Amazon started to attract the attention of the American Civil Liberties Union and advocates of privacy after the introduction of Rekognition in 2016 and started pitching it for law enforcement. But experts like Garvie say that many U.S. agencies rely on facial recognition technology built by companies less well-known, such as Tokyo-based NEC, Chicago-based Motorola Solutions, or European companies Idemia, Gemalto and Cognitec.
Amazon doesn’t abandon facial recognition at all. The company said organizations such as those using Rekognition to help find missing or sexually exploited children still have access to the technology.
This week’s announcements by Amazon and IBM follow an insistence from democratic lawmakers to adopt a major police reform package in Congress that could contain restrictions on the use of facial recognition, especially in police cameras. While not commonly used in the United States, the possibility of cameras that can track crowds and identify people in real time has raised two-fold concerns.
The technology industry has fought against outright prohibitions of facial recognition, but some companies have called for federal laws to set guidelines for responsible use of the technology.
“It is becoming clear that the lack of consistent national rules will delay the acquisition of law enforcement by this valuable technology, delay investigations and make communities less safe,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of the United States. the industry-supported information technology and innovation Foundation, which has advocated for facial recognition providers.
Ángel Díaz, a lawyer at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said he welcomed Amazon’s moratorium, but said it should “come sooner, given numerous studies showing the technology is racially biased.”
“We agree that Congress should act, but local communities should also be given the opportunity to raise concerns and decide if and how they want to use this technology at all,” he said.
O’Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island.
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