Amazon on Wednesday announced a one-year ban on letting police use its facial recognition technology, calling for strong government regulations for its ethical use.
The moratorium comes after repeated calls by critics and racial justice groups for Amazon’s cloud computing unit to stop providing police and immigration officials with tools that can be used to unfairly target people based on race.
“We’re implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology,” the Seattle-based computing and retail titan said in a blog post.
“We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
The announcement came after a coalition of racial justice groups this week launched an online petition calling for Amazon to cut all ties with police and US immigration officials.
The petition takes aim at Amazon Web Services cloud-computing unit’s “Rekognition” facial recognition technology and Ring surveillance cameras used for home security.
“Amazon needs to examine its structural role in the systemic oppression of black people,” said Media Justice campaign strategies director Myaisha Hayes.
Amazon’s “surveillance empire” could be used by police to target people by race, making the company complicit in such abuse, petition backers argued.
Ring cameras sold by Amazon are used for home security, but people can share access to surveillance video with police if they wish.
Amazon said organizations such as the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children will be able to continue using Rekognition to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families.
“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology,” Amazon said in the post.
“And in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge.”
Fight for reform
Northern California American Civil Liberties Union technology director Nicole Ozer said the Amazon move was welcomed, but a one-year moratorium is too brief.
“Face recognition technology gives governments the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go,” Ozer said.
“It fuels police abuse. This surveillance technology must be stopped.”
IBM this week said it no longer sells general-purpose facial recognition software and is opposed to using such technology for racial profiling or mass surveillance.
The century-old technology firm called for responsible national standards regarding how facial recognition systems should be used by police agencies.
The ACLU hoped Microsoft and other technology companies would join Amazon and IBM with moves “toward the right side of history.”
‘Stop the pain’
The Amazon announcement came the same day that the brother of George Floyd, whose killing by police sparked worldwide protests against racism, made an emotional plea to the US Congress to “stop the pain” and pass reforms that reduce police brutality.
One day after burying his brother in Houston, Philonise Floyd appeared in person before a House hearing, where he described the anguish of watching a viral video of George’s death and demanded lawmakers act to fix law enforcement problems including systemic racism.
The five-hour-plus hearing came after congressional Democrats unveiled a package of reforms this week aimed at ending police brutality.
George Floyd, 46, died in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25, when a white officer, who has since been charged with second-degree murder, pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes.
Protests — some violent, most peaceful — erupted nationwide in some of the most serious US civil unrest in generations.