By Tim Cushing
Amazon has spent a few years courting cops with its proprietary facial recognition tech. Documents obtained by the ACLU in 2018 showed the supermassive company was seeking to get a cut of law enforcement’s billions by giving them steep discounts on Rekognition, Amazon’s branded surveillance tech.
Unfortunately for Americans who may be subjected to this tech, Amazon’s brand of facial recognition remains unproven. Tests run by the ACLU managed to get several Congressional reps mistaken for criminals. Amazon responded to the false positives by claiming the ACLU didn’t run it at the right accuracy setting. ACLU went with “80% confidence,” which is something the tech allows. Amazon claimed only results obtained at the “95% confidence” setting mattered, even though the company does not tell law enforcement to only run Rekognition at that setting.
Amazon has taken a lot of criticism for its tech and its law enforcement hard-sell. It has also taken heat for Rekognition’s apparent faults. But it has basically responded with silence. And it had a chance to prove its tech could actually recognize faces, but it chose to sit out NIST’s study of more than 80 facial recognition algorithms. Rekognition’s accuracy remains unproven.
At long last, Amazon has put its finger to the wind. And it has discovered the air is on fire. Giving cops more surveillance tech is about as popular as most cops at the moment. Rekognition may not be able to accurately recognize faces, but Amazon seems to have a handle on recognizing the obvious: now is not the time for more surveillance tech. From Amazon’s blog:
We’re implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology. We will continue to allow organizations like Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics to use Amazon Rekognition to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families.
There are a couple of caveats here: the moratorium does not say it applies to other government users that may not be strictly law enforcement agencies. And the moratorium is being put in place to give Congress time to act. Congress may not get anything done in the next year, which means Rekognition could be opened up for business with no meaningful changes.
Then there’s this:
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.
First off, Amazon has hardly been the most vocal advocate of stronger facial recognition tech regulations. Second, this sort of largesse should always be viewed skeptically. When a dominant player in the field calls for more regulation, it’s usually with an eye on ensuring it remains dominant. Demanding Congress do something mainly means “do something that our competitors won’t be able to comply with.” Facial recognition is a crowded field. NIST’s study examined 89 different algorithms. Getting Congress to clear out the field a bit is always helpful.
But there’s hardly any downside there. We need fewer purveyors of surveillance tech, not more. If it eliminates a few Clearviews, we’re probably all better off. But all the same, be wary of large companies calling for more regulation. It usually means they’re looking to harm their competitors, rather than become more ethical themselves.