A group of activist investors is trying to hold Amazon to account for some of the problems with its Rekognition facial recognition system. To that end, the investors are planning to file shareholder resolutions that would force the Amazon board to commission an independent investigation that would assess the negative impact the software has had on international human rights and civil liberties. The shareholders are also seeking assurances that Rekognition will not be used in a manner that infringes on those rights moving forward.
While the shareholders do not necessarily expect their resolutions to pass, they are hoping that they will raise awareness and create more support for such measures in the future. They framed the initiative as one that would be beneficial for Amazon in the long run, since it would help protect the company (and investors) from the financial liabilities it could face for misusing the technology, and the loss of business that could result from a high-profile privacy scandal.
The motion also carries an element of social responsibility. Amazon’s shareholders expressed particular concern about racial bias, especially in the wake of a 2019 study from the MIT Media Lab that found that Rekognition was less accurate than comparable IBM and Microsoft solutions when applied to women and people with darker skin. By the same token, the ACLU found that Rekognition was more likely to generate false matches for Black Congressmen than it was for their white counterparts.
“Face surveillance dramatically expands law enforcement’s power and threatens rights including privacy, freedom of expression, freedom of association, and due process for everyone. But the threats are greatest for Black and Brown communities, and other people historically and currently marginalized and targeted by policing,” said Open MIC Executive Director Michael Connor. Open MIC is one of the activist organizations backing Harrington Investments, which is one of the Amazon investors pushing the resolution.
Amazon stopped selling Rekognition to law enforcement agencies in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd. It has since announced that its initial one-year ban will be extended indefinitely, and that it has no plans to sell Rekognition to the police at the current time.
The shareholder resolutions reflect the growing opposition to facial recognition from lawmakers, privacy advocates, and the general public. Amazon is not the only tech giant facing opposition from its investors, though it is the only one being singled out for facial recognition. Activists have filed similar resolutions with Facebook, Alphabet, and Twitter to try to stop the spread of misinformation and support worker rights campaigns.
June 2, 2021 – by Eric Weiss