Amazon Shareholders Reject Limits on Facial Recognition Despite Growing Concerns

May 23, 2019

By Spencer Feingold

Amazon shareholders rejected two proposals on Wednesday that would put limitations on its ability to sell facial recognition software, despite growing concern over the technology from the government and civil rights groups.

“When you start getting my face, it starts to bring in all dystopian, scary stuff that we see in the movies,” Ian Wishingrad, a tech analyst and the founder of the advertising company BigEyedWish, told Cheddar in an interview Thursday. “It is very Orwellian.”

The technology, known as Amazon Rekognition, allows systems to automatically identify objects, people, text, scenes, and activities. Rekognition is already used in numerous applications and industries ranging from entertainment to banking. The facial recognition software is also used by law enforcement agencies in multiple states, according to Reuters.

Governments and civil rights advocates, however, remain wary of the potential for gross privacy violations.

Just last week, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban the use of facial recognition technology. Several other cities are expected to follow suit.

“Until we figure out the right way to do it, it is the right thing to say ‘chill out a little bit,’” Wishingrad said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) also came out against the use of Amazon Rekognition by police, saying it “continues to grow rapidly, recklessly, and often in secret — and presents an unprecedented threat to our civil liberties and privacy.”

“Face surveillance arms governments with unprecedented power to track, control, and harm people,” the ACLU added in a tweet.

Amazon’s ($AMZN) shareholder’s vote — whose breakdown was not disclosed — came as lawmakers gathered on Capitol Hill to discuss regulation and the technology's pitfall, especially its algorithmic biases against people of color and women.

"So, we have a technology that was created and designed by one demographic that is only mostly effective on that one demographic, and they're trying to sell it and impose it on the entirety of the country?” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said on Wednesday at the hearing of the House Oversight Committees.

A recent study from the University of Toronto and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that Amazon’s technology had a 7.12 percent error rate for recognizing women with light skin and a 31.37 percent error rate for women with darker skin. Rekognition has an error rate of 0 percent for men with light skin.

Concern over the technology is also bipartisan.

“A facial recognition system appears to me to be a direct violation of Americans' First Amendment and Fourth Amendment liberties,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said on Wednesday. "A facial recognition system also seems to me to threaten ... Americans' due process rights.”