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Campaigners predict U.S. federal facial recognition regulation

Are Amazon policies and local bans causing cyclical pressure?


Amazon’s move to make its moratorium on sales of facial recognition to U.S law enforcement indefinite is adding to the sense of a vacuum for new federal legislation. Campaigners hope for and predict new legislation soon at the federal level, according to the MIT Technology Review.

Much of the backlash against the technology centers around claims of lower accuracy rates when Rekognition analyses people of colour. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) conducted an experiment with the software which falsely matched 28 members of Congress with police mugshots. 39 percent of the false matches were people of color, who only make up 20 percent of Congress.

Since then, several false arrests based on facial recognition have led to growing distrust of the use of the technology and a growing list of local bans (see below). That momentum is leading to hope among campaigners that the brakes will be applied to the rollout of face biometrics at the federal level.

The Review states that Congress is yest to pass any federal legislation on the use of facial recognition in the areas of law enforcement and government or commercial settings that would regulate smaller providers of the technology. While pressure is growing on larger providers such as Amazon, these are not always the partners for government entities.

Kate Ruane, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, tells the MIT she thinks that new uses of the technology should only be allowed after more legislative work and that the “best-case scenario” would see Congress passing a moratorium on its use.

Founder and CEO of AI for the People, Mutale Nkonde, predicts additional federal legislation by 2022’s midterm elections.

Evan Greer, director at Fight for the Future, warns against pursuing solely accuracy levels in any upcoming legislation. “Industry would actually be very happy with a bill that, for example, says something like ‘If you’re going to sell a facial recognition system, it has to be 99% accurate on people of all different races and skin tones,’” the Review quotes Greer as saying.

Federal bills which would limit access to facial recognition by federal entities have already been proposed. The Review lists proposed acts which would ban its use in police body cams, stop the government from working with firms which break their terms of service.

Arrests, advocacy and local bans

Amazon’s own decision to continue the moratorium on providing its facial recognition services to certain branches of law enforcement in the U.S. follows a series of false arrests due to the use of the application of face biometrics matching technologies by police.

In February 2019, Nijeer Parks was arrested due to a mismatch which falsely linked him to aggravated assault, according to CNN.

Researchers joined the call on Amazon to stop selling its Rekognition service to law enforcement since April 2019 over the company’s response to research on error rates for the software.

In December 2020, Massachusetts state lawmakers passed a state-wide police reform bill banning facial recognition technology for police departments and public agencies.

Massachusetts ACLU Liberty program head Kade Crockford said: “No one should have to fear the government tracking and identifying their face wherever they go, or facing wrongful arrest because of biased, error-prone technology…We commend the legislature for advancing a bill to protect all Massachusetts residents from unregulated face surveillance technology.”

Portland, Oregon banned the use of facial recognition by private organizations and local agencies.

Minneapolis blocked its police from using facial recognition either directly or via partner agencies in February 2021.

In the same month, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and a coalition of more than 40 groups called on U.S. President Joe Biden to take executive action to impose a federal moratorium on the use of facial recognition.

This was followed in April 2021, when the ACLU, the ACLU of Michigan, and the University of Michigan Law School’s Civil Rights Litigation Initiative filed a lawsuit in a federal court seeking to force policy changes to the use of facial recognition by the Detroit Police Department after facial recognition was used as a pretext in a false arrest. Prosecutors dropped the case two weeks later and the police chief apologized for “shoddy” investigative work.

Pressure continues for Amazon

The May 10 2021 letter from advocacy groups to Amazon’s outgoing CEO Jeff Bezos and his incoming replacement Andy Jassy, was updated following the change of company policy. The update states: “We earned a huge victory on May 18. After years of fighting, and one week after we launched our #EyesOnAmazon campaign in partnership with the Athena Coalition, Amazon announced it would extend the moratorium on police use of facial recognition software. This is a victory for our people – not corporate goodwill”.

But the campaigners vow to keep up the pressure in part due to Amazon’s wording: “‘Until further notice’ isn’t the same as ‘total ban’. There are still unmet demands on the table, so our #EyesOnAmazon Week of Action will keep advancing this fight until all are met.”

Meanwhile, Amazon’s Ring always-on video camera doorbells are also subject to growing scrutiny. One in ten U.S. police departments have unfettered access to the video feeds, without the need for warrants. “Ring is effectively building the largest corporate-owned, civilian-installed surveillance network that the U.S. has ever seen,” according to Lauren Bridges in an opinion piece for The Guardian.

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