Amazon followed suit a couple of days later putting a temporary, year-long ban on facial recognition contracts with American police departments. Finally, Microsoft said that they, too, would no longer sell facial recognition to American police departments without federal regulation. Details aside, these statements all share the implicit confession of the danger that facial recognition poses to human rights and democracy. This self-containment coming out of Big Tech does not, however, address these very same dangers that exist in the EU. Although these technologies are used within EU member states as well, the decisions from IBM, Amazon and Microsoft only apply to the American context.
In a blog post today, Microsoft President Brad Smith called for Congress to begin considering regulation of facial recognition technology, calling it "the technology of the moment" and noting its "broad societal ramifications and potential for abuse." Throughout the post, Smith discusses the potential pros and cons of facial recognition while also highlighting its current limitations, and he ultimately questions, "What role do we want this type of technology to play in everyday society?" It's a timely question, as Amazon is currently facing pushback over its facial recognition technology and its practice of selling it to law enforcement groups. Employees have asked the company to stop providing law enforcement with the technology, as has the ACLU and multiple Amazon investors. Microsoft has also faced some controversy over its contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but Smith said today that the contract isn't being used for facial recognition.
In January, Detroit police arrested and charged 42-year-old Robert Williams with stealing $4,000 in watches from a retail store 15 months earlier. Taken away in handcuffs in front of his two children, Williams was sent to an interrogation room where police presented him with their evidence: Facial recognition software matched his driver's license photo with surveillance footage from the night of the crime. Williams had an alibi, The New York Times reports, and immediately denied the charges. Police pointed to the image of the suspect from the night of the theft. "I just see a big black guy," he told NPR.
AND THEN there were three. Amazon has joined Microsoft and Google in supporting regulation of facial recognition technology, and it is easy to guess why: Research on bias in the software has amplified public skepticism, and legislators are starting to take note by proposing restrictions and even bans. Facial recognition technology could have many beneficial effects. The software could help stop human trafficking, reunify refugee families and make everyday services -- from banking to paying for groceries -- safer and faster. But it could come with costs, too, which is why regulators are right to pay attention.
Amazon is drawing the ire of its shareholders after an investigation found that it has been marketing powerful facial recognition tools to police. Nearly 20 groups of Amazon shareholders delivered a signed letter to CEO Jeff Bezos on Friday, pressuring the company to stop selling the software to law enforcement. The tool, called'Rekognition', was first released in 2016, but has since been selling it on the cheap to several police departments around the country, with Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon and the city of Orlando, Florida among its customers. Shareholders, including the Social Equity Group and Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment, join the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other privacy advocates in pointing out privacy violations and the dangers of mass surveillance. 'We are concerned the technology would be used to unfairly and disproportionately target and surveil people of color, immigrants, and civil society organizations,' the shareholders write.