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Lawmakers Want Better Answers from Amazon About Facial Matching Program

Published: December 5, 2018
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Source: Nextgov

Democratic lawmakers are again pressing Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to answer questions about the facial recognition technology the company is shopping to law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

“[A]t this time, we have serious concerns that this type of product has significant accuracy issues, places disproportionate burdens on communities of color, and could stifle Americans’ willingness to exercise their First Amendment rights in public,” lawmakers wrote in a letter released Nov. 29, the last day of Amazon’s re:Invent conference. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Reps. Jimmy Gomez, D-Calif., Luis Gutiérrez, D.-Ill., John Lewis, D-Ga., Judy Chu, D-Calif., Ro Khanna, D-Calif., Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., signed the letter.

It’s not the first time Amazon’s two-year-old Rekognition program, which has pilots at ICE and the FBI, popped up on lawmakers’ radar.

In June, around the time the City of Orlando ended its program after civil liberties groups raised privacy questions, the American Civil Liberties Union tested the program using the images of members of Congress. ACLU said it made 28 false matches to criminal mugshots, mainly with members of color.

Markey and Gutiérrez wrote Bezos in July, but Markey knocked back Amazon’s response as “insufficient.” In addition to accuracy questions, lawmakers want to know specifics about Rekognition, such as whether it automatically deletes unused data, whether the company audits how law enforcement uses its software and whether any government customers are using it for “continual, real-time facial recognition of the public.”

Lawmakers requested a response by Dec. 13.

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Orlando, Florida, law enforcement is testing technology developed by Amazon, Inc. to keep the cities residents under constant surveillance, according to a story broken by Buzzfeed. Buzzfeed’s exclusive report details the police department’s potential deployment of Amazon’s Rekognition, the Seattle, Washington-based behemoth’s facial recognition software.

Midday yesterday, activists affiliated with immigrants rights groups NWDC Resistance and Mijente donned Jeff Bezos masks outside Amazon’s Seattle Spheres building to protest the tech giant’s collaboration with ICE. The activists demanded Amazon stop marketing and selling its face surveillance technology, Rekognition, to ICE and other law enforcement agencies. The protest comes on the heels of new revelations about Amazon’s work with law enforcement around face surveillance nationwide.

Last week, the ACLU of Northern California revealed that Amazon’s Rekognition face surveillance software identified 28 members of Congress as people who have been previously arrested for a crime. The only problem? They were false matches. Unsurprisingly, the 28 members of Congress falsely matched to the mugshot database were disproportionately people of color. While Congress is only 20 percent people of color, they were 40 percent of those falsely matched by Rekognition.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said Thursday that in its new test of Amazon’s facial recognition system known as Rekognition, the software erroneously identified 28 members of Congress as people who have been arrested for a crime.

A few weeks ago, the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation (ITIF) released a letter claiming that Amazon’s Rekognition technology was “patriotic and can benefit society”. “Facial recognition technology has many beneficial uses for society, even when used by the government. Even the use-case that privacy advocates are crying wolf over, facial recognition systems integrated with police body cameras, can benefit society.

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