Activists want to ban police from using facial recognition — Amazon and Microsoft just opened the door

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella (L) and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos visit before a meeting of the White House American Technology Council in the State Dining Room of the White House June 19, 2017 in Washington, DC.

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Now that Amazon and Microsoft have put the future use by police of facial recognition in the hands of lawmakers, activists want to keep the technology away from law enforcement permanently.

It’s an issue that had previously been debated among artificial intelligence experts and policy wonks. But with Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, to varying degrees, backing away this week from their promoted use of facial recognition, they’ve raised awareness of the topic and placed it squarely in the discussion of police reform.

“The fact that companies like Microsoft and Amazon are distancing themselves from police use of facial recognition is a sign of the growing power of the movement,” said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a nonprofit focused on technology and human rights. “The tectonic plates are shifting on this issue.”

But Fight for the Future and its affiliates see this as just a start. Amazon said Wednesday it is putting a one-year moratorium on sales to law enforcement to “give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules.” Microsoft followed on Thursday by saying that it won’t sell to police until a national law is in place, “grounded in human rights,” that governs its use. IBM did not specifically say it would ban police use of its facial recognition technology.

Greer’s group says those bans need to be permanent. Fight for the Future has a website, Ban Facial Recognition, where 40 participating organizations, including and Greenpeace, have agreed to support “legislation that bans the government from using this dangerous technology to spy on the American public.” They say the technology is oppressive, ripe for abuse and prone to misidentifying people.

That sentiment is shared by at least some inside Amazon. A group that goes by “Amazonians: We Won’t Build It” on Twitter, responded to the company’s statement on Thursday, tweeting that ending the sale of Rekognition to law enforcement is a “demand shared by employees in Amazon’s Black Employee Network, the @ACLU, community groups, researchers, and others.”

And Timnit Gebru, a research scientist at Google in the ethical AI team, told The New York Times this week that law enforcement can’t be trusted with facial recognition technology. She cited the Baltimore police’s use of the technology in the protests following the 2015 killing of Freddie Gray “to identify protesters by linking images to social media profiles.”

“I’m a black woman living in the U.S. who has dealt with serious consequences of racism,” Gebru told the Times. “Facial recognition is being used against the black community.” 

A debate about the future

The argument is more about the future than the present, as facial recognition has yet to gain significant traction in law enforcement. Microsoft says it hasn’t sold at all into that market, and Amazon previously listed only one law enforcement customer — The Washington County Sheriff Office — on the website for its Rekognition software. 

Still, the prospect of police departments having access to sophisticated technology that allows them to find and track people, with few guardrails, has become untenable after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police and the nationwide protests that followed. Tech companies, with their trillion-dollar market caps, have come under increased pressure from employees, investors and lawmakers to show they’re committed to addressing problems of systemic racism. 

The House Committee on Oversight and Reform has held hearings on the use of facial recognition technology but hasn’t introduced a bill regulating it. Earlier this year, there was bipartisan support for some level of regulation, with Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., and ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, expressing concern about the use of facial recognition technology without accountability.

Crowds gather for a Black Lives Matter rally in Washington Square Park on June 6, 2020 in New York.

Noam Galai | Getty Images

“It is an issue that cuts across the political spectrum,” said Greer.

One reason that Greer and her allies support an outright ban is that any legislation that regulates facial recognition for police use will likely be influenced by Microsoft and Amazon and their massive lobbying arms in Washington, D.C.

“This seems consistent with the playbook,” Greer said. “They say they’re open to regulation or calls for regulation because they know their lawyers will help craft it and make sure it’s friendly to their business model.”

To keep their influence at bay, “we will need robust legislation that brings the hammer down and places an outright ban on facial recognition for surveillance purposes in the U.S.,” Greer said.

Representatives from Amazon and Microsoft didn’t respond to requests for comment.

WATCH: Amazon bans use of its facial recognition technology by police for one year

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