On Wednesday, Amazon announced that it’s not going to allow the police to use its facial recognition software for the next year. The announcement comes after weeks of protests against racial injustice and police brutality throughout the world.
The facial recognition tool will only be used commercially. Organizations such as the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children can also use it for tracing victims of human trafficking, the company said.
“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,” said Amazon in a press statement. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
The one-year ban comes a few days after IBM announced that it’s withdrawing from the facial recognition market.
For quite some time, the advancement of Amazon’s Rekognition tool to law enforcement has been controversial, as it not only provides low precision, but it’s also been used for petty crimes like shoplifting. Additionally, the company’s employees have protested against the use of Amazon’s facial recognition software by the police. Several protesters also demanded the defunding of law enforcement and surveillance tools like facial recognition is part of it.
Amazon has publicly demonstrated its stand against racism by offering $10 million to support social justice and black communities. However, the actions went unnoticed, while the company continued to provide surveillance tools hundreds of law enforcement bodies. Therefore, pausing the use of its recognition software is an assurance that the tech giant is at the forefront of the fight against racism.
Even so, Amazon has boldly expressed support for facial recognition, disqualifying research finding that its Rekognition software has racial and gender bias. The company responded directly to the researchers in a blog post from January 2019 but didn’t mention them during the Wednesday announcement.
Deborah Raji, a student at the University of Toronto, who published the research, says the one-year ban isn’t close to addressing the underlying issue. She’s hoping more severe actions will be taken in the future.
“This is a very small step forward. One year is not enough to really push a lot of policy,” Raji said. “I would hope that they’re not going to spend the year investing in lobbyists. I hope that one-year moratorium also applies to lobbying.”
Amazon didn’t comment on this.
Privacy advocates are also against the use of Amazon’s facial recognition software by law enforcement and are pushing for a complete ban rather than a temporary pause.
“Amazon has made huge sums of money by selling this dangerous and discriminatory tech to police; a one-year pause is not enough,” said Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, in a statement. “Amazon shouldn’t just end this practice for one year or one decade. It should end it forever.”
Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director with the ACLU of Northern California, is happy that Amazon has finally realized the dangers of its Rekognition tool on black and brown communities. Just like privacy advocates, she’s not for a temporary pause, but rather a permanent ban.