Facial Recognition Under Spotlight in Congress, Amazon Meeting

May 22, 2019, 8:31 AM

Concerns over facial recognition technology are set to air on both coasts as lawmakers and shareholders weigh its civil rights implications.

The House Oversight and Reform Committee, in a May 22 hearing, plans to hear from a civil rights group and academics who have studied the technology and its use by police. The hearing comes amid a growing U.S. debate about whether and how law enforcement and the private sector should use the technology.

Government use of the technology “poses potential questions of constitutionality under the First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendments,” the committee said in a statement. “These questions are yet untested as the Supreme Court has not directly ruled upon the constitutionality of police use of facial recognition technology upon citizens.”

Amazon.com Inc. investors will vote at the company’s May 22 annual meeting on two shareholder-submitted proposals related to its facial recognition software, called Rekognition. Under one proposal, shareholders ask the company not to sell Rekognition to government agencies unless the board decides that the technology doesn’t harm civil and human rights. The other would require an independent study to assess if the software risks violating privacy or infringing on civil rights.

The hearing and shareholders’ vote reflect growing scrutiny on facial recognition technology from academics, civil rights groups, and others worried about racial bias, inaccuracies, and the potential for mass surveillance.

So far, policy pushback to the technology, which isn’t federally regulated, has come at the local level. San Francisco officials recently voted to ban the use of facial recognition technology by law enforcement and city agencies. Other municipalities in California and Massachusetts are considering similar proposals.

Pressure on Policymakers

“Members of Congress need to hit the pause button on law enforcement use of this dangerous surveillance technology,” Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union, said in an emailed statement. Guliani is among the witnesses scheduled to testify before the House panel.

The ACLU is also calling for more transparency on federal agencies’use of facial recognition technology and how companies like Amazon market it to them.

Amazon shareholders’ proposals could add pressure on policymakers to regulate police use of facial recognition technology, Jameson Spivack, a policy associate with Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy and Technology, said.

“It sends the signal that even Amazon’s own shareholders are wary of the company’s behavior,” he said in an email.

So are some of Amazon’s employees. Last year, more than 450 Amazon employees signed a letter urging the online retail giant’s top executives to stop selling Rekognition to police departments.

Amazon says it hasn’t received any reports of Rekognition’s misuse by law enforcement agencies. In a statement opposing the shareholder proposals, its board highlighted ways the technology has been helpful, from rescuing victims of human trafficking to preventing package theft.

Amazon Ballot

“Over the past several months, we’ve talked to customers, researchers, academics, policymakers, and others to understand how to best balance the benefits of facial recognition with the potential risks,” Amazon said in a statement. “We outline clear guidelines in our documentation and blog for public safety use, where we also reiterated our support for the creation of a national legislative framework covering facial recognition.”

The two Rekognition-related proposals are among a dozen shareholder submissions on the ballot for Amazon’s annual meeting. The company tried to prevent the facial recognition proposals from going to a vote, but the Securities and Exchange Commission sided with investors on their inclusion.

The proposal asking Amazon for added disclosure on human rights-related risks from facial recognition technology got backing from two top firms that advise institutional investors. But the firms, Institutional Shareholder Services Inc. and Glass, Lewis & Co., are recommending against the proposed ban on selling Rekognition to government agencies, saying it goes far beyond requiring added disclosure.

The proposals aren’t likely to pass, especially given Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos’ firm control of the shareholder vote.

“Companies are introducing these technologies without evaluating or considering the risks,” said Michael Connor, executive director of Open MIC, a non-profit group that works with shareholders.

“We’re not going away. The issue is not going away. Regardless of these shareholder votes and what happens at Amazon, this is a long-term thing,” Connor said in an interview.

To contact the reporter on this story: Sara Merken in Washington at smerken@bloomberglaw.com and Andrea Vittorio in Washington at avittorio@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Roger Yu at ryu@bloomberglaw.com; Keith Perine at kperine@bloomberglaw.com

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