Amazon today declared a halt of the sale of facial recognition to police departments for one year. The news comes one day after George Floyd, a man killed by the Minneapolis Police Department, was laid to rest in Houston, and shortly after IBM pledged to end the sale of or research into facial recognition technology.
Amazon and Microsoft are under increasing pressure to cancel police contracts following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent rage over institutional racism and white supremacy. For example, OneZero learned Tuesday that more than 250 Microsoft employees urged CEO Satya Nadella to cancel the company’s police contracts. VentureBeat reached out to Microsoft to ask if it also plans to put a moratorium in place to reconsider the sale of facial recognition technology.
“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,” Amazon said in a brief statement shared in a Day One blog this afternoon. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
In the past, AWS CEO Andy Jassy said Amazon will sell facial recognition to any government so long as it’s legal, and Amazon shareholders last year rejected a vote to halt sale of facial recognition to government customers. Amazon reportedly attempted to sell its facial recognition tech to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2018 and it’s been used in trials by police in cities like Orlando, but the extent to which Amazon’s Rekognition is used by police today is unknown. It is not yet known if the moratorium includes contracts with federal law enforcement agencies like ICE or local police departments only.
Dr. Charles Romine from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute for Standards and Technology testified before Congress in January that NIST was in talks with Amazon to evaluate its Rekognition software. However, a NIST spokesperson today told VentureBeat that Amazon has not submitted any algorithm for analysis under the Facial Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT) program.
NIST results finding racial bias in facial recognition systems follows the work of the Gender Shades project. Dating back to 2018, AI researchers Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, and Deborah Raji found that facial recognition software from companies like Amazon work best for white men and worst for women with dark skin. This week, Buolamwini and Gebru urged tech giants like Amazon to ban facial recognition.
Buolamwini said she was surprised by the Amazon moratorium news given Amazon’s public dismissal of Gender Shades project research. While reiterating a call for a facial recognition ban, Buolamwini said “Racial justice requires algorithmic justice.”
“With IBM’s decision and Amazon’s recent announcement, the efforts of so many civil liberties organizations, activists, shareholders, employees and researchers to end harmful use of facial recognition are gaining even more momentum,” she said. “Microsoft also needs to take a stand. More importantly our lawmakers need to step up. We cannot rely on self-regulation or hope companies will choose to reign in harmful deployments of the technologies they develop.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is a supporter of facial recognition ban legislation passed in places like San Francisco and frequently called attention to Rekognition classifying lawmakers and NFL athletes as criminals. The ACLU also filed a lawsuit targeting Amazon and Microsoft government contracts last fall.
“It took two years for Amazon to get to this point, but we’re glad the company is finally recognizing the dangers face recognition poses to Black and Brown communities and civil rights more broadly,” said ACLU Northern California tech director Nicole Ozer said in a statement shared with VentureBeat. “We urge Microsoft and other companies to join IBM, Google, and Amazon in moving towards the right side of history.”
European Union Commission officials considered a five-year moratorium of facial recognition earlier this year but backed away from the idea in February. Democratic U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D–NJ) and Jeff Merkley (D–OR) also backed a moratorium earlier this year with the introduction of the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence Act. Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai supported the idea of a facial recognition moratorium earlier this year.
Updated 4:29 pm to include comment from Joy Buolamwini and Nicole Ozer.