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Amazon, facing pressure, won't provide facial recognition to police for a year

In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, the tech giant is calling on Congress to write the rules of the road.

cameras

Lawmakers have yet to unveil significant bipartisan legislation to regulate facial recognition technology.

Photo: Peter Cade/Getty Images

Amazon Web Services on Wednesday announced a one-year moratorium on providing its facial recognition software Rekognition to police departments, as tech companies face mounting pressure to cut certain ties with law enforcement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd.

"We've advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge," AWS wrote in a blog post. "We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested."

The move comes amid nationwide protests over police abuses, which have prompted calls for tech giants to stop working with police in ways that might perpetuate or worsen racial injustice. The use of facial recognition technology in policing is particularly fraught, given that research has shown that a variety of leading tools, including Rekognition, have a higher error rate when trying to match black and brown faces. This week, IBM answered those calls by announcing it was exiting the facial recognition business altogether. That decision prompted demands for Amazon and other tech companies to follow suit.

But for Amazon, hitting pause on providing facial recognition technology to police is arguably a much bigger deal. Its Rekognition technology blankets the country. In an interview with PBS's "Frontline," AWS CEO Andy Jassy said Amazon didn't even know how many police departments were using the tool.

Unlike IBM, however, Amazon is not giving up on the facial recognition business completely. The company specified that the moratorium applies only to its police work. Amazon sells Rekognition to a broad spectrum of clients, from media organizations like CBS to fintech companies that use it for identity verification.

Amazon also famously pitched Rekognition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, igniting a revolt by employees. (An ICE spokesperson previously said ICE does not have a specific contract with Amazon for facial recognition technology.)

It's unclear whether this moratorium would prevent Amazon from offering Rekognition to other government agencies. The blog post did note that the company will continue to allow groups like the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children to use the technology.

The post also sidesteps Amazon's other work with police, which includes partnerships with hundreds of police departments who have access to video footage collected by some Ring doorbells. (Disclosure: Reporter Issie Lapowsky is married to an Amazon employee).

Amazon has previously put forth a legislative framework for how it believes facial recognition should be regulated. Now, it's pushing the responsibility of ensuring facial recognition technology is used responsibly onto Congress. So far, lawmakers have made little progress on that front.

Last year, the House Oversight Committee held a series of hearings aimed at exploring the use of facial recognition. And this week, House Democrats introduced a bill that would, among other things, prevent police from applying facial recognition technology to body camera footage. Still, lawmakers have yet to unveil significant bipartisan legislation to regulate the sensitive technology.

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