Technology giant Amazon announced Thursday it would ban police from using its facial recognition software for the next year. The announcement comes amid calls for increased regulations on police surveillance that follows months of ambiguity around the legal use of facial recognition technology.
Amazon’s facial recognition software, known as Rekognition, has long faced criticism for having an implicit racial bias, a flaw in many artificial intelligence programs. Such programs typically learn from data sets that resemble their creators, namely, white and Asian males who dominate the software development field. As a result, some AI-controlled cameras struggle to recognize facial features of black individuals, which creates a heightened chance of misidentifying people of color.
But in the context of law enforcement, faulty identification could spell danger. Some police departments rely on facial recognition to compare pictures of criminal suspects with mugshots in their database. A false match could result in the detention of an innocent person.
Recognizing the Problem
Amazon’s problematic recognition technology has only fallen under deeper public scrutiny in recent weeks, amid nationwide protests and calls to action for racial justice and police reform. Following allegations that police departments used facial recognition to identify individuals present at mass protests, Amazon has decided to pull its technology for fear of contributing to a culture of police surveillance, at least for the time being.
“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology,” Amazon said in a statement. “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.”
Following the Lead
This is a huge advance for those who have called for more strict limitations on the use of this powerful, yet unreliable technology. Since Amazon’s announcement, the American Civil Liberties Union has also commended Microsoft for instituting its own year long ban on police use of its facial recognition technology.
Meanwhile, IBM has taken a step further by addressing issues of racial injustice in policing head-on. The technology firm’s chief executive, Arvind Krishna, said that the “fight against racism is as urgent as ever,” and that the company will be tackling the complex social issue using a three-pronged approach. IBM would like to work with Congress to enact police reform, regulations on technological applications and increased investment in education.
Still, none of this technology will be banned outright. Amazon has said that Rekognition will still be used in the investigation of human trafficking, as tracking down such victims often requires AI assistance. The major difference is that AI would be used in this case to identify victims, not suspects.
Both Congress and the ACLU are now examining potential next steps for the judicious use of facial recognition. Democrats in Congress have introduced a bill that would ban police from using the technology in real time, while the ACLU wants further regulations that would also prohibit the use of facial recognition on police body-cam footage.