Privacy and digital rights advocates on Tuesday welcomed Amazon’s decision to extend a nearly expired one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition software, Rekognition, “until further notice,” while also calling on U.S. policymakers at all levels of government to fully end law enforcement use of such tools.
“We need Congress to take action and pass a federal ban on facial recognition now.”
—Evan Greer, Fight for the Future
Reuters revealed Amazon’s decision in an exclusive report. The company did not offer a reason for the move, though the outlet added that “critics have noted a study showing Rekognition struggled to determine the gender of individuals with darker skin tones, research that Amazon has contested.”
Various studies have shown flaws and biases in facial recognition technology, bolstering calls for restrictions or bans on use by not only law enforcement but also individuals and corporations.
“Amazon knows they are on the wrong side of this issue. They only made this announcement because racial justice, privacy rights, and worker advocacy groups are demanding a permanent ban of their racist facial recognition technology. If Amazon thinks they can dodge pressure by announcing this PR half-measure, they are very wrong,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital advocacy group Fight for the Future, in a statement.
Referencing Amazon’s controversial doorbell cameras, Greer argued that “to demonstrate true care for our privacy or Black lives, they must end their 2,000+ Ring-police partnerships, cut ties with [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], and permanently stop selling Rekognition.”
“And what does ‘until further notice’ even mean?” she added. “Basically, at any time Amazon could flip the switch and resume selling facial recognition technology to the police. Facial recognition technology is too dangerous for it to be implemented at the whims of corporations like Amazon. We need Congress to take action and pass a federal ban on facial recognition now.”
While echoing that call, other critics of the company celebrated a win for organizers:
Amazon first announced its moratorium last June, amid a wave of racial justice protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, a unarmed Black man, in Minneapolis. At the time, critics called the moratorium “nothing more than a public relations stunt” while a company statement expressed hope that the year “might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules.”
Although a quartet of progressives in Congress introduced legislation to effectively ban government use of facial recognition and other biometric technology nationwide just a couple of weeks after Amazon’s move last year—and some local communities have imposed restrictions or bans in recent years—there are still no federal policies.
“The threats posed last year by police use of face recognition technology are identical today,” said Nathan Freed Wessler, deputy director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, in a statement. “Face recognition technology fuels the over-policing of Black and Brown communities, and has already led to the false arrests and wrongful incarcerations of multiple Black men.”
“We are glad that Amazon will extend its moratorium on law enforcement use of the company’s face recognition technology,” he added. “Now, the Biden administration and legislatures across the country must further protect communities from the dangers of this technology by ending its use by law enforcement entirely, regardless which company is selling it.”
Amazon’s moratorium decision comes a week after a coalition of groups including the Athena Coalition, Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, MediaJustice, Mijente, and Mpower Change launched the “Eyes on Amazon” campaign demanding that the company permanently stop selling Rekognition to the police.
“Allowing police to use Rekognition, a dangerous surveillance tool, poses a threat to the safety of Black communities and others who are already being unfairly targeted and surveilled by law enforcement,” the groups wrote last week in an open letter to Jeff Bezos and Andy Jassy, the CEOs of Amazon and Amazon Web Services.
The coalition is planning a week of action set to kick off on June 7, including a virtual protest on June 10—which, as a recent statement put it, “will mark the one-year anniversary of Amazon’s performative, empty promise to stop selling racist facial recognition and surveillance technologies to law enforcement.”
“We’ve got all #EyesOnAmazon,” the statement added, “because it’s #PrimeTime to shift power back to the people.”