Here’s the top-level summary: Amazon created a facial recognition program that is imperfect and has a history of miss-identifying people of colour and women. They are selling this technology to the American police force without any governance or rules on how the technology is used outside of its benefits which leaves citizens open to unauthorized surveillance and data gathering.

Amira Dhalla
Dec 3, 2018 · 5 min read

The Story of Facial Recognition

Technology companies are racing to create the newest and most innovative products, often with little regard to the future negative impacts of these tools on society. While watching companies launch new tools, I am increasingly focused on understanding the impact they have on the rights of individuals, especially those most vulnerable. In 2017, I was among many who skeptically watched as Amazon launched its new service, Rekognition, that made it easy to add image and video analysis to an application. Rekognition would allow for people to detect, analyze and compare faces for user verification, counting and safety purposes. Simply put, the tool would be able to identify people’s faces in pictures or videos online and detect facial features like hair style or emotions like anger or hate.

The movement towards facial recognition technology has quickly grown in the past few years, with many technology-focused companies such as Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple developing tools that would allow for end-user convenience and efficiency on their platforms or in their tools. For consumers it can be used to provide ease, organization or personability to the tools they already use. This can be seen through unlocking your phone with your face, or automatically sorting your pictures by specific people or providing recommendations based on images. When used appropriately, the broader society can also benefit from these positive uses of facial recognition. For example, the tool can locate missing people, showcase emotions of those who have the potential to do harm in a given environment, or track criminals after they have committed a crime.

The Risk

Alas, facial recognition can also be harmful as it infringes on individuals’ human rights by gathering and using their data without consent. For example, retailers can integrate facial recognition in their stores to further monitor and sell the data of customers based on what they buy in a store or the mood they are in when purchasing. This data can be used to manipulate customers and there is currently no obligation for the store to share the facial tracking tools used in their purchasing environments. Government can also use these tools to surveil people in ways that violate their privacy, such as monitoring individuals because of their attendance at political rallies or because of the company they keep. Government surveillance poses a threat to our most vulnerable communities and unjustly targets particular individuals such as people of color, religion, and migration.

Need for Governance

What I find most concerning is that there are currently no rules to govern how this tool is to be used by private or public sectors, which raises numerous issues as to what control individuals have on being unfairly targeted or watched. Being a new tool there are also many security issues, including being open to errors with a particular track record of misidentifying women and people of color. Another issue has been raised on the security of the tools itself and its ability to protect from others hacking the system and leveraging data for personal gain.

Amazon has focused on the positive impact of Rekognition but what makes it different from other technology companies is the fact that since the product was conceived, they have been marketing and selling it to law enforcement as a way to track and identify criminal suspects. If you add Rekognition to the database of thousands of images, videos and content that the government has access to then it can be used to track people and their attributes anywhere at any time. Much to our concern, Amazon has been distributing their tool without conversations or engagement on how it is used which leaves it open to the discretion of the government. Most recently the tool has been used by the Police Department in Orlando, Florida and by the Sheriff’s department in Washington County, Oregon. As the tool is relatively new, we can only foresee the uses of the tool to increase and be used more regularly. Putting this technology into the hands of law enforcement, or others, without addressing the many issues that it has puts people, and their data, at risk.

Others Fear This As Well

Recently, ACLU formed a coalition of civil rights groups calling on Amazon to stop selling the program to law enforcement to protect the freedom of individuals in the country by not powering a tool that violates rights and targets communities of color. Employees at Amazon have been writing anonymous articles also urging Amazon to not use Rekognition for mass surveillance outlining many concerns for the tool. Microsoft also wrote as open letter asking for greater government regulation and awareness when creating or using facial-recognition software. Among admitting their own initial disregard for the potentially negative impacts of their facial recognition technology, Microsoft also highlights in their letter some of the core issues with the tool such as individual freedom, biases of the tools, and its many technical imperfections. Corporations and civil rights groups alike are mobilizing around regulation and better policy reform for facial recognition products.

Looking Forward

The future of facial recognition can be positive but we need the organizations creating these tools to lead the discussion on how we can create these tools while upholding the rights of all citizens. We will not gain from companies like Amazon who claim to put consumers-first, but are quick to put these harmful tools into the hands of others without regard for the negative consequences and future outlook these tools have on the greater society. As a leader in the technology industry, Amazon has a responsibility to do what it can to ensure that innovative tools are used in ethical ways that protect individuals and propel society forward. Amazon is in a unique position to work with the private and public sector to set regulations and parameters on how facial recognition tools are used in a way that protects rights and is transparent to society. We need to pressure Amazon to protect the rights to privacy and freedom of citizens in the United States by suspending the sales of Rekognition to law enforcement and instead starting a dialogue on how we use tools like facial recognition in humane and secure ways.

Amira Dhalla

Written by

A teacher, learner and sharer of all things gender, tech, privacy, and equity. Currently studying human rights and technology.

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