Last year’s wide-ranging and critical congressional hearings caught Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple and other tech giants in their dragnet. Amazon, for the most part, came out unscathed, but that might soon change.
The ACLU researchers raised concerns over Rekognition, Amazon’s facial recognition software suite, this past summer when they discovered what the researchers characterized as significant flaws in the product. This prompted an inquiry from lawmakers including Senators Ron Wyden, Chris Coons, and Ed Markey. Amazon’s unsatisfying response prompted yet another inquiry in November. Spearheaded by Markey, this effort was joined by seven other lawmakers including Congressman Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat.
“We haven’t received much information and it seems like [for] somebody who’s very confident of their product it’s surprising that they won’t answer those questions,” Gomez told Gizmodo.
Since this second letter was sent, yet another study indicated the presence of bias in Rekognition. Amazon contends that neither set of researchers followed the company’s guidelines for the software, but reporting by Gizmodo found that Rekognition’s only known law enforcement client—the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon—does not follow those suggested guidelines in its use of the software either. Representative Gomez said his staff asked Amazon if the company performs audits to make sure their clients are using the software as directed: “They said, ‘we have to get back to you.’”
It’s possible there are other law enforcement clients besides the WCSO, but Amazon refuses to divulge them to reporters or lawmakers. “They haven’t given us the list of their clients,” Gomez told Gizmodo. He referenced reporting by the Daily Beast that indicated Amazon had been actively pitching Immigrations and Customs Enforcement on using Rekogntion, something he called “a big concern to the Latino community as a whole as well other pro-immigrant advocates.”
Gallingly, the closest Amazon has come to responding to questions was a blog post last week by Michael Punke, the vice president of global public policy at Amazon Web Services, where he provided five broad ideas for regulating law enforcement use of facial recognition technology, encouraging “ policymakers to consider these guidelines as potential legislation.” Punke’s suggestions include following the law, human review of matches when identifying suspects, and for law enforcement to be transparent about its use of the tools.
“We encourage policymakers to consider these guidelines as potential legislation and rules are considered in the US and other countries,” Punke wrote in the post, which he said is intended to promote an “open, honest, and earnest dialogue among all parties involved to ensure that the technology is applied appropriately and is continuously enhanced.”
With the company still stonewalling lawmakers, Gomez intends to bring company representatives in for questioning. “I’m currently having that discussion with Chairman of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties,” he said. “We’re gonna make our case that there should be a hearing on it.” A spokesperson for Rep. Jamie Raskin, the subcommittee’s chairman, told Gizmodo that while “the Committee and subcommittee hearing schedule has not been set yet but I know this is one of many subjects that has been raised by Members and is being discussed.”
“We still have to have a serious conversation on the uses of this technology. How accurate it is?” Gomez said, “Why is it that other major firms are not selling it to law enforcement?”
We’ve reached out to the other lawmakers who signed these two letters of inquiry to Amazon and will update if they provide comment. Amazon did not yet respond to our request to comment on Gomez’s efforts.
Update 2/12/19 3:25 pm EST: We received the following statement from Senator Chris Coons:
Facial recognition technology has developed quickly and presents new and unique opportunities to make our communities safer. However, as with all new technologies, those benefits must be weighed against core privacy protections and civil rights. We should establish clear guidelines surrounding the use of facial recognition technology, including use by law enforcement, that strike the right balance. I look forward to working with my colleagues and all stakeholders toward that goal.