Big Tech Companies Pull Back on Facial Recognition Products

After years of dissent from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Fight for the Future and groups of academics, Big Tech companies are finally taking another look at their facial recognition products. Microsoft president Brad Smith stated his company won’t sell facial recognition to the police until federal regulation is instituted. Amazon placed a one-year moratorium on police use of its Rekognition software, and IBM backed away entirely from facial recognition products, citing the potential for abuse. Yesterday we reported that Congress introduced a police reform bill that includes limits on the use of facial recognition software.

Vox reports that notable academic researchers including “Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, and Deborah Raji have demonstrated that these technologies can come with concerning built-in racial and gender biases.”

Big Tech’s movements come as “lawmakers have zeroed in on law enforcement’s access to surveillance tools and their potential use on protests” and Congress considers legislation. Amazon’s Rekognition, part of Amazon Web Services, in particular has “faced criticism and opposition for years,” particularly on how “it can be rife with racial and gender bias.”

Amazon now wants government regulation, but previously pushed back against Buolamwini and Raji’s 2018 academic research, which “highlight[ed] the extent to which facial recognition systems could have racial and gender biases.” When Amazon denied the academics’ research, 80 researchers defended them. The ACLU used Buolamwini and Raji’s research as the foundation for their own demonstration in Congress that resulted in 28 lawmakers being misidentified as people who had been arrested.

Rekognition has been tested by police departments in Oregon and Orlando, Florida, but AWS chief executive Andy Jassy said, “the company doesn’t know the number of [police] departments that have used Rekognition or how they’re using it.” The company will still allow use of Rekognition for organizations that fight human trafficking and find missing children.

Amazon and other Big Tech companies said they want federal laws “to avoid patchwork regulation that means different laws exist in different states … but critics … warned that corporate calls for regulation should be met with skepticism, as companies can push laws that are weak and ultimately defend their interests,” especially with well-funded lobbying.

Some worry that, as the big players step back, smaller facial recognition companies — such as Vigilant Solutions and NEC — will step in. Vox notes that, with Amazon, IBM and Microsoft pulling back, it “could be a sign that norms surrounding facial recognition are changing.”

Referring to Amazon, Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) said, “pressing pause on the use of this technology by law enforcement is a positive step, but what Amazon should really do is a complete about-face and get out of the business of dangerous surveillance altogether.” Other lawmakers hold less draconian views.

In The Wall Street Journal, Microsoft’s Smith noted that, “if all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that are not prepared to take a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of the black and African-American people of this nation well.”

“We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone,” he said.

Related:
Facial Recognition Paused While Congress Considers Reform, ETCentric, 6/16/20