Microsoft and Amazon Support Facial Recognition Regulations

The technology is currently an unregulated practice.
February 11, 2019

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Ore. – When attempting to solve crimes, sheriff’s deputies in Washington County send photos of suspects’ faces to Amazon’s cloud computing service, and the ecommerce giant’s algorithms check those faces against a database of tens of thousands of mugshots, using Amazon’s Rekognition image analysis service.

According to a report from Wired.com, the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement is currently an unregulated practice, and some developers of the technology want to see changes.

In a blog post last week, Amazon officials asked Congress to establish rules around the use of face-recognition technology. In December, Microsoft made a similar public request. The concerns come amid growing scrutiny on the use and accuracy of facial recognition by researchers, lawmakers and civil liberties groups.

In the post, Michael Punke, vice president of global public policy for Amazon’s cloud division, said that Amazon “supports the creation of a national legislative framework covering facial recognition through video and photographic monitoring on public or commercial premises.”

Civil rights groups began pressuring Amazon after tests by academics and the ACLU found that Rekognition’s image analysis and face recognition applications were less accurate for black people.

In January, two researchers announced that the technology that tries to determine the gender of people in photos, separate from the face recognition service, is less accurate for black women. When the ACLU tested Amazon’s face recognition service using images of congressmembers, the service—incorrectly—found matches for 28 of them in a group of mugshots. The false positives were disproportionately people of color.

Amazon’s post last week said that in both cases Rekognition was “not used properly”—an assertion that has been denied by the researchers. However, Amazon would like to see legislation “that protects individual civil rights and ensures that governments are transparent in their use of facial recognition technology,” Punke said in the blog.

His post says the message is aimed at lawmakers and follows talks with customers, researchers, academics and policymakers. Amazon declined to make Punke or anyone else available to discuss the topic.

In December, Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, asked governments to regulate the technology to prevent invasions of privacy or create new forms of discrimination. “We believe that the only way to protect against this race to the bottom is to build a floor of responsibility that supports healthy market competition,” Smith said.

Neither Microsoft nor Amazon risks losing immediate revenue by requesting restrictions on how customers use one of their products, says Clare Garvie, a fellow at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology.

Despite their technology reputations, neither Amazon or Microsoft is big supplier of facial-recognition software to U.S. law enforcement or government agencies, Garvie said. That area belongs to less familiar names, such as IDEMIA, which helps with U.S. passport applications, and NEC Corporation, which works with Customs and Border Protection to check international passengers at some airports.

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