Amazon investors: Quit selling facial-recognition tech to gov’t

Amazon investors are urging the company to halt sales of its facial-recognition software to government agencies over fears the technology could be used to violate people’s rights.

In a resolution filed Thursday, a group of shareholders asked Amazon’s board to stop selling its tool, Rekognition, to governments unless a third-party evaluation determines it “does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights.”

The group was organized by Open MIC, a nonprofit that encourages activism by investors in tech and media companies. The investors behind the resolution, which include the religious order Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, hope Amazon’s board will put it to a vote at the online retailer’s annual shareholder meeting in the spring.

Shareholder resolutions are rarely approved, and they are not binding. That means that even if the facial-recognition one does pass, the company doesn’t have to abide by it. The group of shareholders didn’t say how much of Amazon’s stock (AMZN) it holds.

Rekognition uses deep learning — an artificial intelligence technique for finding patterns in data — to identify objects (such as cats or sofas), faces and scenes in videos and images. For example, it could be used to scan the faces of people entering a courthouse in real time to see if they are in a criminal database. Released in 2016, it has been used by government customers including police departments in Florida and Oregon.

The shareholder group is the latest organization to voice concerns about the potential misuse of AI, and of facial recognition, in particular.

While facial-recognition software can be helpful for combating issues such as sex trafficking, it’s still quite error prone. The American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes Amazon’s sale of the software to the government, highlighted one of the issues with facial recognition technology in July. It said that it tested Rekognition and found that it incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots in a database, and that the errors were more common with people of color.

Last year, nearly 20 groups of Amazon shareholders sent a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos, asking the company to stop selling Rekognition to the government. More than two dozen civil rights groups, led by the ACLU, made the same request. And hundreds of Amazon employees have asked the company to stop selling the software to government as well.

Amazon declined to comment on the shareholder resolution Thursday.

In October, Bezos said Amazon would keep doing business with government agencies, including the US Department of Defense.

“If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the DoD, this country is going to be in trouble,” Bezos said on stage at the Wired25 conference in San Francisco.