Last week, Amazon made a terse announcement that it would institute a “one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology,” known as Rekognition, in response to the wave of global protests against police brutality spurred by the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. At least one lawmaker is unsatisfied by the company’s limp new commitment to racial justice.
“Corporations have been quick to share expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement,” U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat, wrote in a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos today. “Unfortunately, too many of these gestures have been performative at best. Calling on Congress to regulate facial recognition technology is one of these gestures.”
Other tech giants like IBM and Microsoft have recently stated they’re permanently bowing out of the facial recognition space over concerns that the software presents a high potential for abuse. Contrastingly, Amazon’s year-long hiatus is as much a strategy to avoid the bad optics of aiding irresponsible policing as it is an attempt to make Congress work on the company’s schedule. Nor is the actual language of the hiatus as ironclad as many would like to believe.
As Rep. Gomez points out:
[T]he 102-word blog post announcement fails to specify whether Amazon will stop selling Rekognition to police departments during the moratorium; whether the company will stop the development of its facial recognition system during the moratorium; whether the moratorium would encompass both local and federal law enforcement agencies beyond the police, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE); whether the moratorium applies to current contracts with law enforcement agencies; and whether Amazon plans to submit their technology to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) for testing before it resumes operations
Obviously, this would be where elected officials ask for clarity on these specifics. But lawmakers have been, by in large, met with Amazon’s strategy of slow-rolling any inquiry into its business practices. While the company tries to soak up goodwill for its vague and temporary new restrictions on selling facial recognition software to police, many questions remain “ignored or woefully unaddressed,” according to Gomez, even as the company’s CEO claims he’ll make himself available to testify before Congress (gee, thanks, Jeff.)
Included in this letter is an 11-point summary, “a representative, non-exhaustive list of questions” Rep. Gomez has asked specifically about the topic of Amazon’s facial recognition. Other Congresspeople who have served longer than Gomez, who took office in 2017, or have asked for information about other potentially troubling aspects of Amazon’s business likely have their own laundry list of non-answers from this increasingly unaccountable entity. In Gomez’s case, some of these inquiries were sent nearly two full years ago.
We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment and will update when we receive a response.
One imagines that if Amazon, with all its resources, can’t answer the most basic of questions about how its software works in two years, it does not seriously expect Congress to legislate how that same software would be used in one. Unless of course, Amazon’s lobbyists already have something in mind.
If you have read or are in possession of any draft legislation about facial recognition which Amazon has been involved in crafting, send me a tip by email or Keybase; send me a Twitter DM if you’d like my number on Signal; or drop a file anonymously on our Secure Drop server.