6 min read

Update, 12th April 2018: Amazon shareholders will now be voting on at the 2019 Annual Meeting of Shareholders of Amazon, on whether the company board should prohibit sales of Facial recognition tech to the government. The meeting will be held at 9:00 a.m., Pacific Time, on Wednesday, May 22, 2019, at Fremont Studios, Seattle, Washington. 

Over 30 researchers from top tech firms (Google, Microsoft, et al), academic institutions and civil rights groups signed an open letter, last week, calling on Amazon to stop selling Amazon Rekognition to law enforcement. The letter, published on Medium, has been signed by the likes of this year’s Turing award winner, Yoshua Bengio, and Anima Anandkumar, a Caltech professor, director of Machine Learning research at NVIDIA, and former principal scientist at AWS among others.

Amazon Rekognition is a deep-learning based service that is capable of storing and searching tens of millions of faces at a time. It allows detection of objects, scenes, activities and inappropriate content. However, Amazon Rekognition has long been a bone of contention among public eye and rights groups. This is due to the inaccuracies in its face recognition capability and over the concerns that selling Rekognition to law enforcement can hamper public privacy.

For instance, an anonymous Amazon employee spoke out against Amazon selling its facial recognition technology to the police, last year, calling it a “Flawed technology”. Also, a group of seven House Democrats sent a letter to Amazon CEO, last November, over Amazon Rekognition, raising concerns and questions about its accuracy and the possible effects. Moreover, a group of over 85 coalition groups sent a letter to Amazon, earlier this year, urging the company to not sell its facial surveillance technology to the government.

Researchers argue against unregulated Amazon Rekognition use

Researchers state in the letter that a study conducted by Inioluwa Deborah Raji and Joy Buolamwini shows that Rekognition possesses much higher error rates and is imprecise in classifying the gender of darker skinned women than lighter skinned men. However, Dr. Matthew Wood, general manager, AI, AWS and Michael Punke, vice president of global public policy, AWS, were irreverent about the research and disregarded it by labeling it as “misleading”.

Dr. Wood also stated that “facial analysis and facial recognition are completely different in terms of the underlying technology and the data used to train them. Trying to use facial analysis to gauge the accuracy of facial recognition is ill-advised”.  Researchers in the letter have called on that statement saying that it is ‘problematic on multiple fronts’.

The letter also sheds light on the real world implications of the misuse of face recognition tools. It talks about Clare Garvie, Alvaro Bedoya and Jonathan Frankle of the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law who studies law enforcement’s use of face recognition. According to them, using face recognition tech can put the wrong people to trial due to cases of mistaken identity. Also, it is quite common that the law enforcement operators are neither aware of the parameters of these tools, nor do they know how to interpret some of their results. Relying on decisions from automated tools can lead to “automation bias”.

Another argument Dr. Wood makes to defend the technology is that “To date (over two years after releasing the service), we have had no reported law enforcement misuses of Amazon Rekognition.”However, the letter states that this is unfair as there are currently no laws in place to audit Rekognition’s use. Moreover, Amazon has not disclosed any information about its customers or any details about the error rates of Rekognition across different intersectional demographics.

“How can we then ensure that this tool is not improperly being used as Dr. Wood states? What we can rely on are the audits by independent researchers, such as Raji and Buolamwini..that demonstrates the types of biases that exist in these products”, reads the letter.

Researchers say that they find Dr. Wood and Mr. Punke’s response to the peer-reviewed research is ‘disappointing’ and hope Amazon will dive deeper into examining all of its products before deciding on making it available for use by the Police.

More trouble for Amazon: SEC approves Shareholders’ proposal for need to release more information on Rekognition

Just earlier this week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced a ruling that considers Amazon shareholders’ proposal to demand Amazon to provide more information about the company’s use and sale of biometric facial recognition technology as appropriate. The shareholders said that they are worried about the use of Rekognition and consider it a significant risk to human rights and shareholder value.

Shareholders mentioned two new proposals regarding Rekognition and requested their inclusion in the company’s proxy materials:

  • The first proposal called on Board of directors to prohibit the selling of Rekognition to the government unless it has been evaluated that the tech does not violate human and civil rights.
  • The second proposal urges Board Commission to conduct an independent study of Rekognition. This would further help examine the risks of Rekognition on the immigrants, activists, people of color, and the general public of the United States. Also, the study would help analyze how such tech is marketed and sold to foreign governments that may be “repressive”, along with other financial risks associated with human rights issues.

Amazon chastised the proposals and claimed that both the proposals should be discarded under the subsections of Rule 14a-8 as they related to the company’s “ordinary business and operations that are not economically significant”. But, SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance countered Amazon’s arguments. It told Amazon that it is unable to conclude that “proposals are not otherwise significantly related to the Company’s business” and approved their inclusion in the company’s proxy materials, reports Compliance Week.

“The Board of Directors did not provide an opinion or evidence needed to support the claim that the issues raised by the Proposals are ‘an insignificant public policy issue for the Company”, states the division. “The controversy surrounding the technology threatens the relationship of trust between the Company and its consumers, employees, and the public at large”.

SEC Ruling, however, only expresses informal views, and whether Amazon is obligated to accept the proposals can only be decided by the U.S. District Court should the shareholders further legally pursue these proposals.  

For more information, check out the detailed coverage at Compliance Week report.

Read Next

AWS updates the face detection, analysis and recognition capabilities in Amazon Rekognition

AWS makes Amazon Rekognition, its image recognition AI, available for Asia-Pacific developers

Amazon Rekognition can now ‘recognize’ faces in a crowd at real-time

Tech writer at the Packt Hub. Dreamer, book nerd, lover of scented candles, karaoke, and Gilmore Girls.