Amazon employees have expressed concerns to management about the company’s facial recognition software Rekognition, which has been licensed to police departments and marketed to the federal agency Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In a closed-door Q&A on Thursday, Amazon management defended its decision to continue the relationship.
It’s part of a broader trend. In October, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) unveiled plans to incorporate facial scans nationwide and the FBI unlocked a suspect’s iPhone using FaceID for the first time. Both are results of facial scanning’s increased prevalence and technological ease.
For Amazon’s part, the development and subsequent licensing of Rekognition, the company’s powerful API similar to Apple’s FaceID, has garnered controversy in recent months, notably when the app misidentified 28 members of Congress with arrest mugshots during an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) study in July. The technology has also drawn scrutiny from Amazon’s own shareholders and the Congressional Black Caucus alike, each of whom wrote letters to CEO Jeff Bezos earlier this year warning of the program’s susceptibility for abuse and racial bias.
The controversy seems to be roiling behind closed company doors, too. Amazon employees expressed concerns about law enforcement agencies potentially abusing the software, which has previously demonstrated racial bias, in an all-hands meeting with Amazon Web Services (AWS) CEO Andrew Jassy, Gizmodo reported Thursday.
According to the transcript obtained by Gizmodo, Jassy answered a question about potential surveillance and civil rights abuses posed by Rekognition:
“I think we’re going to have people who have opinions that are very wide-ranging, which is great. But we feel really great and really strongly about the value that Amazon Rekognition is providing our customers of all sizes and all types of industries in law enforcement and out of law enforcement.”
Jassy noted any law enforcement agency that violates AWS’ terms of service or is found guilty of a constitutional rights violation would have to curtail using the product but stressed the regulatory imperative is mainly on governments.
The bulwark against this technology may in fact lay in the courts. A Georgetown Law School study claimed the TSA’s face-scanning plans “[stand] on shaky legal ground.” Meanwhile, the legal implications of the FBI’s face-scanning antics are also under consideration. Rekognition, though not widely employed by authorities across the US, has drawn scrutiny for being ill-conceived and poorly executed. Only time will tell if it will also be short-lived.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics