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Shareholders Attempt to Stop Amazon’s Sale of Facial ‘Rekognition’

NIST computer scientist Ross Micheals demonstrates studying the performance of facial recognition software programs. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
NIST computer scientist Ross Micheals demonstrates studying the performance of facial recognition software programs. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“We want Amazon’s board to oversee and disclose how Amazon is addressing the significant risks posed by the sale of facial recognition technology.”

Amazon has recently faced pressure from its investors over the sale of its facial recognition software, known as Rekognition. Citizen Truth has previously written about the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) concern that Amazon’s Rekognition could be invasive and dangerous, but now shareholders are adding their voice to the concern.

Shareholders put Rekognition to the test in May with two votes that attempted to stop or slow down the development and sale of Rekognition to the U.S. government.

How Facial Recognition Software Works

After scanning a person’s photo, facial recognition software uses artificial intelligence to compare it to potential matches of photos in its database. The software will recommend matches or even names if similar photos are found.

According to Lifewire, facial recognition software uses “a number of measurements and technologies to scan faces including thermal imaging, 3D face mapping, cataloging unique features (also called landmarks), analyzing geometric proportions of facial features, mapping distance between key facial features, and skin surface texture analysis.”

Amazon describes Rekognition on its product description page: “You can detect, analyze, and compare faces for a wide variety of user verification, people counting, and public safety use cases.”

Investors Vote on Facial Recognition Proposals

In May, investors introduced two proposals for vote. One proposal requested that Amazon ban the sale of Rekognition to the government – with the exception of the board determining that the software does not violate human rights.

The Sisters of St. Joseph, a religious community in New York, is one of Amazon’s shareholders. Sister Pat Mahoney, one of its members responsible for introducing the proposed sales ban, told The New York Times that “this piece of equipment that Amazon has fostered and developed and is really propagating at this point doesn’t seem to us to be in the best interest of the common good. Facial recognition all over the place just makes everyone live in a police state.”

The other proposal asked Amazon to generate a report that would examine the degree to which the facial recognition software could jeopardize the company’s finances, as well as privacy, human and civil rights.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, spoke at a Wired tech conference last year: “Technologies always are two-sided. There are ways they can be misused. That’s always been the case, and we will figure it out. The last thing I’d ever want to do is stop the progress of new technologies, even when they are dual use.”

ACLU Accuses Amazon of ‘Failing to Act Responsibly’

In Amazon’s annual shareholder meeting in late May, the ACLU shared a letter, accusing the company of “failing to act responsibly” if they refused to stop selling their facial recognition technology to government agencies.

The ACLU shared their letter with TechCrunch:

“This technology fundamentally alters the balance of power between government and individuals, arming governments with unprecedented power to track, control, and harm people. It would enable police to instantaneously and automatically determine the identities and locations of people going about their daily lives, allowing government agencies to routinely track their own residents. Associated software may even display dangerous and likely inaccurate information to police about a person’s emotions or state of mind.”

In Amazon’s 2018 shareholder meeting, the ACLU voiced their concerns about Rekognition’s use by law enforcement, airports and other public places. Along with other critics, the ACLU said that the technology is flawed, struggling to identify “people of color.”

The letter continued:

“As shown by a long history of other surveillance technologies, face surveillance is certain to be disproportionately aimed at immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, activists, and other vulnerable communities. Without shareholder action, Amazon may soon become known more for its role in facilitating pervasive government surveillance than for its consumer retail operations.”

Investors Reject Banning the Sale of Rekognition to Law Enforcement

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer, the investment adviser to the funds, voiced his concerns publicly: “We want Amazon’s board to oversee and disclose how Amazon is addressing the significant risks posed by the sale of facial recognition technology.”

He went on to describe the technology as “a product that could lead to violations of human and civil rights around the world, especially if sold to authoritarian governments.”

Michael Punke, Amazon Web Services global vice president for public policy, emphasized the need for transparency in an Amazon blog post in February: “To create the greatest public confidence in responsible law enforcement use of facial recognition, we encourage law enforcement entities to be transparent about their use of the technology and to describe this use in regular transparency reports.”

In Amazon’s annual meeting this May, shareholders voted against the two proposals related to Rekognition. The company will continue to sell the facial recognition software to law enforcement and government agencies.

Leighanna Shirey

Leighanna graduated with a degree in English from Pensacola Christian College. After teaching high school English for five years, she decided to pursue her dream of writing and editing. When not working, she enjoys traveling with her husband, spending time with her dogs, and drinking way too much coffee.

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