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Short Amazon’s facial recognition ban. Go long on selling Rekognition to cops again


amazon biometric facial recognition

In a spacious corner office at Amazon sits a man at a desk with a finger over a button. When it is pressed, Amazon will begin selling facial recognition technology to any governmental body anywhere on the planet.

The man is Andy Jassy, the chosen heir to Amazon’s departing CEO Jeff Bezos, and he seems irritated that he cannot just mash that button this instant.

Amazon Web Services CEO Jassy was interviewed one year ago by PBS’ James Jacoby about the tricky nature of selling facial recognition technology to domestic law enforcement. Tricky how? was Jassy’s unspoken but unmistakable reply.

At least as of February last year, Amazon’s facial recognition service Rekognition had been used without incident — zero complaints about cops using them, he said. One has to take him at his word that there have been no documented complaints about misuse because visibility into Amazon operations is limited.

Last June, one of the top civil rights concerns in the United States was the fact that AI in general (and Rekognition in particular) cannot identify non-white males with the same accuracy that it does white males.

So Bezos issued a one-year moratorium on letting law enforcement agencies use Recognition. There was vague talk of giving the U.S. Congress or the White House some time to create rules for cop shops employing AI.

Not that anyone took seriously the idea that Washington could settle a highly technical controversy in a year, but should it somehow happen, the result would give manufacturers like Amazon from some cover for legal liability.

But things are not lining up in favor of extending the moratorium. World events could make a return to the market for Rekognition less controversial.

It will be ending during the nation’s second COVID summer. And the first highly anticipated trials of insurrectionists will be starting. Facial recognition could be off most people’s radar again.

If there is someone in the industry at that time advocating to hold steady until dust settles, it will not be Jassy. Forbes has described him as an aggressive, bottom-line executive. Someone who is not just powerful at Amazon but “in the world of business.”

In the PBS interview, Jassy does not blink while sweeping aside questions about Amazon’s responsibility. People wronged or who have seen other people wronged, he said, can document the incident and post it online or send it to an abuse hotline found on Amazon.com. If executives are convinced by a complaint, they will withhold platform access.

Of course, it might be challenging for someone erroneously jailed — in Detroit or Turkey — to document evidence that Rekognition was misused by police to get a conviction, and get it on Facebook much less to Amazon’s AWS staff.

It is possible that Amazon’s second CEO will have moderated his take-that-hill stance in terms of facial recognition revenue, and keep the moratorium. It is also possible that Washington will step in to give the industry useful and equitable guardrails to operate between.

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