SEC: Amazon must let shareholders vote on facial recognition

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Amazon must allow shareholders to vote on a resolution that asks the online retailer to stop selling its facial-recognition software tool to government agencies, the Security and Exchange Commission said this week.

The SEC on Wednesday rejected Amazon’s attempt to squash the shareholder proposals. One proposal asks Amazon’s board to stop selling the company’s Rekognition software to governments unless a third-party evaluation determines the tool “does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights.” The other asks Amazon to enlist an outside entity to study the risks of using Rekognition.

Wednesday’s decision throws out an appeal Amazon made to the agency. The company first tried last month to prevent the proposals from being included at its annual meeting, but the SEC disagreed.

The victory for shareholders may well end up being a symbolic one. Shareholder resolutions are rarely approved, and they are not binding.

Still, the situation highlights “the rush of tech companies to introduce new technologies without really thinking through the implications,” Open MIC executive director Michael Connor told CNN Business on Thursday. Connor’s organization is a nonprofit that encourages activism by investors in tech and media companies. It helped the Amazon shareholders organize.

Amazon declined to comment about the decision to CNN Business.

Facial-recognition technology has a lot of promise. It is being used to fight human trafficking and help people speed through airport security.

But it still has accuracy issues. Researchers are increasingly concerned about how well the tech can do things like correctly recognize people of color and women.

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 can be used to scan the faces of people entering a courthouse in real time to see if they are in a criminal database.

The Amazon technology was released in 2016 and has been used by governments, including police departments in Florida and Oregon.

Amazon’s shareholders are not the only ones who want the company to reconsider selling Rekognition to the government. More than 20 civil rights groups and hundreds of Amazon employees have asked the same. This week, dozens of academic researchers — including Yoshua Bengio, a recent Turing Award winner — signed a post on the website Medium asking the company to halt sales of Rekognition to law enforcement.

Amazon has previously defended the technology, saying it helps identify criminals and spot missing people. The company said in February that it had not gotten “a single report of misuse by law enforcement” in the two years that it has been available.

Amazon also has said it supports calls for legislation that regulates how facial-recognition technology can be used.

No such federal rules exist. But states have tried. Illinois, for example, has a law that requires companies get consent from customers before collecting biometric information. And the state senate in Amazon’s home state of Washington recently passed a bill that limits the use of facial recognition. That bill still has to pass the state’s house of representatives.

The date for Amazon’s upcoming annual meeting hasn’t been announced. Last year, it was held on May 30.