On Thursday, a group of seven House Democrats sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding further details about AWS Rekognition, Amazon’s controversial facial recognition technology. This is the third letter and like those before it, it raises concerns and questions about Rekognition’s accuracy and the possible effects it might have on citizens.
The very first letter was sent late in July. Amazon responded in August with a diplomatic yet unsatisfactory letter of their own that failed to provide much detail. A second letter was then sent in November. According to the congressmen, the second letter was sent because “Amazon didn’t give sufficient answers.”in their initial response.
The initial inquiry was timed around a an ACLU report that found Rekognition—software the company has sold to law enforcement and pitched for use by Immigration and Customs Enforcement—had incorrectly matched the faces of 28 members of Congress with individuals included in a database of mugshots. Amazon employees then signed a June letter to senior management, demanding that they cancel ongoing Rekognition contracts with law enforcement agencies.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez told BuzzFeed News in an interview “If there’s a problem with this technology, it could have a profound impact on livelihoods and lives. There are no checks or balances on the tech that’s coming out- and this is in the hands of law enforcement.”
Written by Sen. Edward Markey and Reps. Gomez, Luis Gutiérrez, Ro Khanna, among others, the letter reprimands Amazon for “[failing] to provide sufficient answers” to the previous two letters sent by the House Democrats. It also raises additional concerns based on “newly available information” — specifically BuzzFeed News’s investigation into how the Orlando Police Department uses the tech, as well as a report that Amazon had actively marketed the tech to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The House Democrats also wrote in today’s letter about their concern regarding Rekognition’s “accuracy issues.” They write that they “have serious concerns that this type of product has significant accuracy issues, places disproportionate burdens on communities of color”. There are also further questions around whether Amazon will build privacy protections into its facial recognition system, and how it will ensure it is not abused for secret government surveillance.
As first reported by Gizmodo, AWS CEO Andy Jassy first addressed employee concerns at an all-hands meeting earlier this month. At that meeting, he cited the software’s Terms of Service as the core roadblock to potential abuses. At Amazon’s re:Invent conference, Jassy said that “Even though we haven’t had a reported abuse case, we’re very aware people will be able to do things with these services that could do harm.”
Amazon continues to sell this potentially harmful software regardless.Lawmakers closed today’s letter with specific question about the operation and bias of Rekognition, and they’re giving Amazon a strict reply deadline of December 13. You can head over to BuzzFeed News to read the entire letter.
Germany adds antitrust probe in addition to EU’s scrutiny on Amazon
On Thursday, Germany’s antitrust agency said that it has begun an investigation of Amazon over complaints that it is abusing its position to the detriment of sellers who use its “marketplace” platform.
“Because of the many complaints we have received we will examine whether Amazon is abusing its market position to the detriment of sellers active on its marketplace,” said agency head Andreas Mundt. “We will scrutinize its terms of business and practices toward sellers.” This investigation adds to the EU’s scrutiny of the company’s information gathering practices..
Amazon’s “double role as the largest retailer and largest marketplace has the potential to hinder other sellers on its platform” said the Federal Cartel Office.
Amazon said it could not comment on ongoing proceedings but said that “We will cooperate fully with the Bundeskartellamt and continue working hard to support small and medium-sized businesses and help them grow”.