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Amazon extends police facial recognition moratorium

60 minutes examines law enforcement use and misuse


Amazon has taken the time limit off of its self-imposed moratorium on offering its face biometrics technology to U.S. law enforcement, The Washington Post reports.

The company announced its moratorium last year, saying it would give Congress time to put regulations in place for police facial recognition use, which has not been passed and does not appear close. Proposals have been brought forward at the federal level, and bans and restrictions have been passed at the state and local level, with another being considered in Washington’s King County, site of one of Amazon’s main offices.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to provide further detail on the company’s restriction, other than that it is now in place indefinitely.

Police use of face biometrics examined

Face biometrics have been blamed in several wrongful arrests in the U.S., each of a Black man. A recent episode of 60 Minutes considers these cases.

Detroit Chief of Police James Craig tells 60 Minutes that the case of Robert Williams, one of the men, was a case of “Sloppy, sloppy investigative work.”

“The response by this administration– that detective was disciplined,” Craig explains. “And, subsequently, a commanding officer of that command has been de-appointed. But it wasn’t facial recognition that failed. What failed was a horrible investigation.”

The report notes that the police failed to establish probable cause, according to their own standard. Georgetown Center on Privacy and Technology Attorney Clare Garvie notes that face biometrics algorithms have different accuracy rates, and that the absence of rules has created an environment in which police frequently flout best practices. Too often, she says, police assume that because it is based on math and science the technology is sometimes wrongly considered infallible by police.

Detroit police have spent an estimated $1.8 million on its facial recognition system since implementing it in 2017. It was used in 117 investigations in 2020, and has been a crucial tool in combatting the city’s violent crime problem. The force has put new oversight processes in place to prevent future wrongful arrests.

60 Minutes spoke to Patrick Grother of NIST about how the technology works and how effective it is.

The piece does not refer explicitly to Joy Buolamwini or the Algorithmic Justice League, which some viewers said was an oversight, prompting CBS to publish an editor’s note explaining the show’s focus on the use of research gathered from people not appearing on camera for the story.

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