Amazon today said it’s declared a halt of the sale of facial recognition to police departments for one year. The news comes one day after George Floyd, a man killed by the Minneapolis Police Department, was laid to rest in Houston, and shortly after IBM pledged to end the sale of or research into facial recognition technology.
Amazon and Microsoft are under increasing pressure to cancel police contracts following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent rage over institutional racism and white supremacy. For example, OneZero learned Tuesday that more than 250 Microsoft employees urged CEO Satya Nadella to cancel its police contracts. VentureBeat reached out to Microsoft to ask if it also plans to put a moratorium in place to reconsider the sale of facial recognition technology.
“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. We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested,” Amazon said in a brief statement shared in a Day One blog this afternoon.
In the past, AWS CEO Andy Jassy said Amazon will sell facial recognition to any government so long as it’s legal, and Amazon shareholders last year rejected a vote to halt sale of facial recognition to government customers. Amazon reportedly attempted to sell its facial recognition to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2018 and it’s been used in trials by police in cities like Orlando, but the extent to which Amazon’s Rekognition is used by police today is unknown. It is not yet known if the moratorium includes contracts with federal law enforcement agencies like ICE or local police departments only.
Dr. Charles Romine from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute for Standards and Technology testified before Congress in January that NIST was in talks with Amazon to evaluate its Rekognition software. However, a NIST spokesperson today told VentureBeat that Amazon has not submitted any algorithm for analysis under the Facial Recognition Vendor Test (FRVT) program.
NIST results finding racial bias in facial recognition systems follows the work of the Gender Shades project, work dating back to 2018 by AI researchers Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, and Deborah Raji that finds facial recognition software from companies like Amazon often work better on white men and worse on women with dark skin. This week, Algorithmic Justice League founder Joy Buolamwini and Google AI’s Timnit Gebru, also a Gender Shades coauthor, both urged tech giants like Amazon to ban facial recognition.
European Union Commission officials considered a five-year moratorium of facial recognition earlier this year but backed away from the idea in February. Democratic U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D–NJ) and Jeff Merkley (D–OR) also backed a moratorium earlier this year with the introduction of the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence Act. Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai supported the idea of a facial recognition moratorium earlier this year.