Lawmakers Still Pressuring Amazon Over Controversial Face-Detection Tech

Amazon Cloud Cam Logo Surveillance AH Nov 29 2018

A group of American lawmakers continued pressuring Amazon over its controversial facial recognition technology called Rekognition, having sent a third public letter to the company in a span of four months. Addressed to Amazon founder and Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos, the letter criticizes the firm for not delivering what the legislators deemed “sufficient answers”  in July when they were provided with two separate demands for details on the face-detection tool. Like the Capitol Hill’s last two attempts at obtaining information on Amazon Rekognition, the new letter is co-signed exclusively be Democratic lawmakers – Representatives Jimmy Gomez, Luis V. Gutierrez, Jan Schakowsky, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Judy Chu, and John Lewis, as well as Senator Edward J. Markey who publicized the contents of the request several hours back.

The Congress members once again demanded Amazon’s assessment on the accuracy of Rekognition and bias assessments of the tool. In addition to raw data, they requested the information in question be broken down by age, gender, ethnicity, and race. Another question contained in the letter targets Amazon’s methodology of obtaining such data, directly asking how the company assesses Rekognition’s bias, particularly in regards to racial bias. The Democratic lawmakers also inquired over the existence of any built-in protections meant to ensure “innocent Americans” don’t have their privacy violated by ending up in law enforcement databases with no legal basis. On that front, the politicians also asked whether Amazon developed a system that automatically deletes unused facial recognition data.

Furthermore, Amazon was asked whether it conducts regular audits in order to ensure government agencies aren’t abusing its technology for the purposes of illegal secretive surveillance, in addition to ensuring it’s not violating federal civil rights law by disproportionally affecting individuals based on protected characteristics such as race, gender, and religion. The letter raises the question of whether any use cases of Rekognition are in violation of Amazon’s terms of service and how is the technology giant working to combat them in case it detects such misuse. Finally, the lawmakers directly asked Amazon to name government agencies that currently utilize Rekognition for real-time surveillance of the American public. The Democrats want to see the questions answered by Thursday, December 13. Amazon has yet to reflect on the development in any capacity.


Background: The new communication comes on the heels of two letters dated July 26 and 27 which contained identical questions. While Amazon provided the legislators with some answers that they deemed unsatisfactory, the lawmakers didn’t clarify on why its responses were insufficient, save for wording the new request in a manner that indicates an overall lack of details was the main problem.

According to a late May report from the America Civil Liberties Union, Amazon has been selling and licensing Rekognition to government bodies since last year. As of mid-2018, the software was in use by at least two law enforcement agencies – County Sheriff’s Offices in Washington, Florida, and Orlando. Oregon. The Washington County is said to have combined the technology with a database of close to 300,000 mugshots and created a mobile app for its officers that allowed them to perform scans of suspects and compare them against that knowledge base, whether by importing an existing photograph or taking one themselves. Information ACLU obtained from public record requests suggests Orlando started using the system even more aggressively and is feeding it footage from cameras connected to the county’s infrastructure grid.

Less than a month later, nearly 20 shareholder groups urged Amazon to stop providing law enforcement agencies with Rekognition licenses, citing major privacy concerns. It’s presently unclear whether the technology juggernaut ever responded to that request in an official capacity, though the firm obviously dismissed it. Possibly the most controversial development stemming from Rekognition use to date is a late July episode that saw the technology falsely identify 28 Congress members as subjects of a mugshot database built from 25,000 publicly available photographs. The experiment conducted by ACLU highlighted the concerns outlined by today’s letter – the service appears to have issues with producing an increased volume of false positives when it comes to identifying individuals who aren’t white.


At the time, ACLU technology attorney Jacob Snow argued false positives are a massive issue for any kind of face-detection service used by law enforcement as they could make officers biased and indirectly lead to unnecessary injuries or deaths, exemplifying that claim by hypothesizing about a scenario wherein a government agency mistakens an individual for someone with a concealed-weapon warrant. Congressional Black Caucus reacted to ACLU’s July report with two letters to Mr. Bezos, whereas the non-profit itself has been campaigning for Rekognition to be dropped from the government’s arsenal of tools ever since. Neither effort yielded significant results to date, leading to today’s letter.

Impact: While Amazon reportedly did little to explain itself to Democratic representatives so far, the company might end up being compelled to do so in a matter of weeks. Following the results of the latest mid-terms from early November, a new House majority will be sworn in this January, which will provide it with constitutional powers to subpoena and question both individuals and companies through committees. Should the Seattle-based company continue resisting requests for detailed answers regarding Rekognition, the new House roster could force it to do so on live television or in private, provided they still deem the issue worthy of their attention after January 3, which appears to be a highly probable scenario.

Amazon itself is unlikely to change its official stance on Rekognition regardless of any concerns from the Capitol Hill; the company believes its solution to be a useful tool for tracking missing persons and is also employing it for the purposes of theft prevention. As to whether the firm abides with the December 13 deadline the lawmakers attached to their latest letter, it’s likely to respond to the letter by that date in some shape or form. However, as the last two information request attempts from Congress exemplified, a timely response may not necessarily be one that the concerned caucus will automatically find satisfactory and Amazon has yet to show any intention of becoming more transparent on the subject of Rekognition use.