Privacy Expert Slams Amazon’s Facial Recognition ‘Pause’

Amazon has come under fire from privacy groups after saying it will only pause police use of its controversial facial recognition software for a year.

The tech giant said in a statement that it wants to give lawmakers time to improve regulation of the industry.

“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,” it said. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

Launched in 2016, Amazon’s Rekognition software has, like many similar products, been accused of racial bias. A 2019 MIT study on this even led to a shareholder vote on whether the company should stop selling the product to governments. However, only 2.4% of shareholders voted in favor.

“Automated systems are not inherently neutral. They reflect the priorities, preferences and prejudices – the coded gaze – of those who have the power to mold artificial intelligence,” that study concluded.

“We risk losing the gains made with the civil rights movement and women’s movement under the false assumption of machine neutrality. We must demand increased transparency and accountability.”

Amazon’s decision comes in the wake of civil unrest in the US over the death of George Floyd in police custody.

However, it came in contrast to IBM, which earlier this week announced it would exit the facial recognition business altogether. That makes Amazon’s announcement seem more like a PR stunt, according to Ray Walsh, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy.

“Amazon claims that its Rekognition tech should only be used by the police to arrest suspects when the technology is 99% sure a match is correct. US police forces, however, are known to ignore this request and to instead take up to five matches from the system to be treated as suspects,” he argued.

“Despite this – and the fact that studies have shown Rekognition is far less accurate when dealing with African American faces – Amazon has been enthusiastically selling its technology to US police forces to create a revenue stream.”

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