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Amazon on Wednesday said shareholders rejected proposals to curb and audit its facial recognition service, just as members of Congress indicated there was bipartisan support to one day regulate the technology.
In the past year Amazon has found itself at the center of a growing debate over the use of facial recognition by governments, with critics warning of false matches and arrests and proponents arguing it keeps the public safe. Law enforcement in Oregon and Florida have used Amazon’s face and image ID service, known as Rekognition.
With support from civil liberties groups, two non-binding proposals on facial recognition made it to the ballot ahead of Amazon’s shareholder meeting on Wednesday. Amazon had tried to stop the votes but was effectively overruled by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
The first proposal would have made the company stop offering facial recognition to governments unless its board determined sales did not violate civil liberties. A second would have requested a study by September of the extent to which Amazon’s service harmed rights and privacy.
Behind the shareholder concern was research that showed Amazon’s technology struggled more than its peers’ to identify the gender of individuals with darker skin, prompting fears that a faulty technology would put innocent people behind bars.
Amazon has defended its work and said all users must follow the law. It also added a web portal for people to report any abuse of the service here.
The proposals faced an uphill battle. Amazon’s board recommended against them, and Jeff Bezos, the company’s chief executive and founder, controls 16% of its stock and voting rights.
Still, critics of the technology saw potential benefits from the proposals.
“This shareholder intervention should serve as a wake-up call for the company to reckon with the real harms of face surveillance and to change course,” said Shankar Narayan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state.
A key Congressional committee also met on Wednesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss the impact of facial recognition on civil rights. Responding to the Amazon vote, Democratic U.S. Representative Jimmy Gomez of California said, “That just means that it’s more important that Congress acts.”
Republican members of the committee expressed concern about U.S. citizens having their privacy violated and being caught up in law enforcement databases without having done anything wrong. A second hearing on the topic is scheduled for June 4.
Mark Meadows, a Republican representing North Carolina, said it was time to work on legislation regarding the technology.
“You’ve now hit the sweet spot that brings progressives and conservatives together,” he said.
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