Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced his company is developing a set of regulations for facial recognition technology it will share with federal lawmakers. The idea is that Amazon will write its draft of what it thinks federal legislation should look like, and then pitch lawmakers to adopt as much of it as possible.
- What are Amazon’s motives – educate lawmakers, speed the adoption of facial recognition technology, or others?
- How does facial recognition technology represent a threat to civil liberties? What should be included in the regulatory guidelines?
- Rather than going solo, how can technology companies work together on proposed regulations? Last year, Microsoft recommended building a floor of responsibility for facial recognition that supports healthy market competition.
- Amazon’s Rekognition software lets its customers match photos and videos of people’s faces with databases of other face photos, such as those of criminals, in real-time.
- Critics have pointed to technology from Amazon and others that struggled to identify the gender of individuals with darker skin in recent studies. That has prompted fears of unjust arrests if the technology is used by more law enforcement agencies to identify suspects.
- Bezos’s announcement comes a few months after Andy Jassy, CEO of Amazon Web Services, which sells the Rekognition software, told Recode’s Code Conference audience that he hoped federal regulation happened soon.
Amazon employees, along with civil liberties groups and lawmakers, have called out Amazon Web Services (AWS) for marketing its Rekognition technology to police, ICE, and other law enforcement agencies, over concerns that the powerful technology could be misused.
To illustrate the problem: this past summer, the ACLU tested the Rekognition software and found that it incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of people who have committed a crime. The false matches disproportionately tagged members of Congress who are people of color. Amazon said the ACLU had used the wrong setting for the software.
“It’s a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don’t want to put the brakes on it,” Bezos added. “But, at the same time, there’s also potential for abuses of that kind of technology, so you do want regulations. It’s a classic dual-use kind of technology.”
Bezos also added, “Our public policy team is actually working on facial recognition regulations; it makes a lot of sense to regulate that,” Bezos said in response to a reporter’s question at the Alexa event in Seattle on Wednesday.
The Amazon policy team’s approach of drafting regulation for the tech underscores the importance of Rekognition for Amazon Web Services. It’s also a sign that Amazon recognizes that in this era of powerful grassroots activist and political movements, it must do a better job of reassuring people about innovative technologies with downsides that also terrify the public.
In a statement, ACLU Northern CA Attorney Jacob Snow said: “It’s a welcome sign that Amazon is finally acknowledging the dangers of face surveillance. But we’ve seen this playbook before. Once companies realize that people are demanding strong privacy protections, they sweep in, pushing weak rules that won’t protect consumer privacy and rights.”