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Amazon facial recognition used in Russia despite sanctions, says former employee

Amazon facial recognition used in Russia despite sanctions, says former employee

Amazon has supplied facial recognition technology to Russia despite UK sanctions on the country imposed after it invaded Ukraine, a former employee at Amazon Web Services claims.

The ex-employee Charles Forrest alleges that Amazon supplied the technology to Russian state services through VisionLabs using a shell company in the Netherlands after the UK imposed sanctions on Moscow. Netherlands-based VisionLabs B.V. i is one of the shareholders of Russian-based company VisionLabs LLC, which has been put on the U.S. Department of Commerce Entity List.

Forrest also claims that Amazon has allowed police forces in the UK to use its facial recognition to catch criminal suspects even after pledging not to sell the technology to law enforcement.

The allegations are part of a wider suit against Amazon Web Services for unfair dismissal which was brought by Forrest to a central London employment tribunal last week, according to the Financial Times. The former employee claims the dismissal ensued after he blew the whistle on several issues between November 2022 and May 2023.

Forrest alleges that Amazon signed a deal with VisionLabs in 2020 to supply its facial recognition tech “through what appears to be a shell company based in the Netherlands and that technology continued to be used in Russia after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. The alleged illegal activity was reported to the UK’s House of Commons Defence Select Committee and Serious Fraud Office in May 2023, according to his account.

Amazon is pushing back against these claims. The company denies that it sold its Rekognition product to the Russian company.

“Based on available evidence and billing records, AWS did not sell Amazon Rekognition services to VisionLabs,” an Amazon spokesperson said per the FT.

The company also says that Forrest was dismissed for gross misconduct after refusing to work contractual hours and failing to attend meetings and respond to emails. Forrest worked at AWS for four years until 2023.

Amazon did, however, admit that it has breached its promise not to sell facial recognition to police, but added that “a self-imposed moratorium does not amount to a legal obligation.” The company put a one-year moratorium on direct sales of its facial recognition service to law enforcement in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by a U.S. police officer in 2020.

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