Amazon has announced a one-year ban on police using one of its most controversial products.
Amazon has announced a one-year ban on police using one of its most controversial products.

Amazon blocks tech from cops

Amazon has announced it will prevent police departments using its facial recognition program for a whole entire year.

The news comes as brands scramble to avoid saying or doing anything to attract scandal in response to the BlackLivesMatter movement, which some brands are achieving much more easily than others.

Brands with known ties to police departments are having a particularly tricky time given the subject of the protests.

Particularly ones whose relationship with police involve facial recognition technology, which has been repeatedly shown to be plagued by racial biases and could lead to people being falsely accused or even convicted of crimes they had nothing to do with.

 

Amazon has dragged behind IBM, Microsoft and Google in making similar announcements, and delivered a moratorium on police departments using its software for a year rather than permanently banning them.

"We're implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon's facial recognition technology," the company said in a brief post on its blog.

"We will continue to allow organisations … to use Amazon Rekognition to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families.

"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. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested," the company note said.

Amazon's facial recognition program, dubbed "Rekognition", has been one of many sources of controversy for the "everything" company.

Washington County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jeff Talbot demonstrates how his agency uses facial recognition software. The department has used Rekognition since 2017. Picture: AP / Gillian Flaccus
Washington County Sheriff's Office Deputy Jeff Talbot demonstrates how his agency uses facial recognition software. The department has used Rekognition since 2017. Picture: AP / Gillian Flaccus

While the face Amazon presents to the world is of an e-commerce player, it's come a long way since finding a more efficient way to sell books over the internet and is now a massive overarching corporation.

Its web services division is its most profitable, and powers millions of websites around the world.

Software backed by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (though not developed by Amazon) is also in use by police departments around the world, including Australia's biggest police department: the New South Wales Police Force.

Facial recognition is an attractive tool for law enforcement, but at this stage a very deeply flawed one.

In a study last year, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology found the majority of facial recognition programs "exhibit demographic differentials".

What this means is that they are better at recognising the faces of some genders and races than others.

"While it is usually incorrect to make statements across algorithms, we found empirical evidence for the existence of demographic differentials in the majority of the face recognition algorithms we studied," NIST computer scientist and the report's lead author Patrick Grother said.

The report didn't investigate what caused the "differentials", just whether they existed.

Despite the flaws, facial recognition software has still been used by police departments in the US, and in Australia.

 

The American Civil Liberties Union Northern California demanded Amazon get out of the surveillance business after learning Rekognition was in use in Florida and Oregon as early as 2017.

Amazon won't reveal which police departments or how many of them use its software.

It's also believed to be used by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, but so far neither party has admitted they do or said they don't.

Emails leaked by independent watchdog Project on Government Oversight have shown Amazon and ICE met, discussed Rekognition, and held follow-up discussions.

On the Rekognition website, Amazon bills the product as an automated image and video analysis software that uses machine learning.

It prominently lists the NFL, CBS and National Geographic among its client list, but no law enforcement agencies.

Amazon's one-year moratorium comes long after competitors took similar steps, or quit the market altogether.

Google announced in 2018 it wouldn't pursue facial recognition technology, and CEO Sundar Pichai followed up on that last year by calling for a temporary ban on its use.

IBM recently announced it would end development on facial recognition. Picture: AP / Mary Altaffer
IBM recently announced it would end development on facial recognition. Picture: AP / Mary Altaffer

Microsoft hasn't backed the ban, but has expressed concerns about the technology its developing.

In April last year, Microsoft president Brad Smith revealed it had rejected a request from a California law enforcement agency to use its technology.

According to Reuters , Microsoft concluded it would lead to innocent women and minorities being disproportionately held for questioning because the artificial intelligence has been trained on mostly white and male pictures.

IBM announced earlier this month it was going to stop developing facial recognition due to concerns over mass surveillance and racial profiling among other reasons (possibly including the fact it lagged behind its competitors).

"IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency," IBM CEO Arvind Krishna wrote in a letter to Congress.

"We believe now is the time to begin a national dialogue on whether and how facial recognition technology should be employed by domestic law enforcement agencies," he added.

Do you think law enforcement should be allowed to use facial recognition technology? Have your say in the comments below.

 

 

Originally published as Amazon blocks tech from cops


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