4 min read

The need to regulate facial recognition technology has been a matter of debate for the last year. Since news that Amazon had sold its facial recognition product Rekognition to a number of law enforcement agencies in the U.S. in the first half of 2018, criticism of the technology has been constant. It has arguably become the focal point for the ongoing discussion about the relationship between tech and government.

Despite months of criticism and scrutiny – from inside and outside the company – Amazon’s leadership has said it, too, believes that facial recognition technology needs to be regulated.

In a blog post published yesterday, Michael Punke, VP of Public Policy at AWS (and author of The Revenant, trivia fans), clarified Amazon’s position on the use and abuse of Rekognition. He also offered some guidelines that he argued should be followed when using facial recognition technologies to protect against misuse.

Michael Punke defends Rekognition

Punke initially takes issue with some of the tests done by the likes of ACLU, which found that the tool matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots.

Tests like this are misleading, Punke claims, because “the service was not used properly… When we’ve re-created their tests using the service correctly, we’ve shown that facial recognition is actually a very valuable tool for improving accuracy and removing bias when compared to manual, human processes.”

Punke also highlights that where Rekognition has been used by law enforcement agencies, Amazon has not “received a single report of misuse.” Nevertheless, he goes on to mphasise that Amazon does indeed accept the need for regulation. This suggests that in spite of its apparent success, there has been an ongoing conversation on the topic inside AWS. Managing public perception was likely an important factor here.

“We’ve talked to customers, researchers, academics, policymakers, and others to understand how to best balance the benefits of facial recognition with the potential risks,” he writes.

Out of these guidelines, Punke explains, Amazon has developed its own set of guidelines for how Rekognition should be used.

Amazon’s proposed guidelines for facial recognition technology

Punke – and by extension Amazon – argues that, first and foremost, facial recognition technology must be used in accordance with the law. He stresses that this includes any civil rights legislation designed to protect vulnerable and minority groups.

“Our customers are responsible for following the law in how they use the technology,” he writes. He also points out that that Amazon already has a policy forbidding the illegal use of its products – the AWS Acceptable Use policy.

This does, of course, only go so far. Punke seems well aware of this, however, writing that Amazon “have and will continue to offer our support to policymakers and legislators in identifying areas to develop guidance or legislation to clarify the proper application of those laws.”

Human checks and transparency

Beyond this basic point, there are a number of other guidelines specified by Punke. These are mainly to do with human checks and transparency.

Punke writes that when facial recognition technology is used by law enforcement agencies, human oversight is required to act as a check on the algorithm.

This is particularly important when the use of facial recognition technology could violate an individual’s civil liberties. Put simply, the deployment of any facial recognition technology requires human judgement at every stage.

However, Punke does provide a caveat to this, saying that a 99% confidence threshold should be met in cases where facial recognition could violate someone’s civil liberties. However, he stresses that the technology should only ever be one component within a given investigation. It shouldn’t be the “sole determinant” in an investigation.

Finally, Punke stresses the importance of transparency. This means two things: law enforcement agencies being transparent in how they actually use facial recognition technology, and physical public notices when facial recognition technology could be used in a surveillance context.

What does it all mean?

In truth, Punke’s blog post doesn’t really mean that much. The bulk of it is, after all, about actions Amazon is already taking, and conversations it claims are ongoing.

But it does tell us that Amazon can see trouble is brewing and that it wants to control the narrative when it comes to facial recognition technology.

“New technology should not be banned or condemned because of its potential misuse,” Punke argues – a point which sounds reasonable but fails to properly engage with the reality that potential misuse outweighs usefulness, especially in the hands of government and law enforcement.

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