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Congressional Leaders Express Civil Rights Concerns about Amazon Facial Recognition

MA Sen. Ed Markey and CA Rep. Jimmy Gomez aim to get more information from Amazon’s Jeff Bezos about Amazon Facial Recognition, ‘Rekognition.’

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Lawmakers are pressing Amazon chairman, president and CEO for answers about the company’s facial recognition technology, Amazon Rekognition, particularly on the constitutional impact it could have on “communities of color.”

California Rep. Jimmy Gomez and U.S. Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) were joined by Reps. Luis Gutiérrez (IL-04), John Lewis (GA-05), Judy Chu (CA-27), Ro Khanna (CA-17), Pramila Jayapal (WA-07), and Jan Schakowsky (IL-09) in a letter to Bezos requesting information about the technology and some of its applications.

“Facial recognition technology may one day serve as a useful tool for law enforcement officials working to protect the American public and keep us safe,” write the lawmakers in their letter to Mr. Bezos on Nov. 29.

“However, at this time, we have serious concerns that this type of product has significant accuracy issues, places disproportionate burdens on communities of color, and could stifle Americans’ willingness to exercise their First Amendment rights in public.”

In the letter, the lawmakers ask Amazon to provide:

— Results of any internal accuracy or bias assessments that Amazon has performed on Rekognition.

— Detailed information on how Amazon tests for facial recognition accuracy, how often Amazon tests, and whether these results have been independently verified.

— Detailed information on how Amazon tests for bias in its facial recognition results, especially racial bias.

The lawmakers also asked Amazon to respond to questions that include:

— Does Amazon build protections into the Rekognition system to protect the privacy rights of innocent Americans caught up in either the biometric databases used by law enforcement for comparisons, or in the data law enforcement uses to search those databases?

— Does Amazon Rekognition contain a mechanism for automatically deleting unused biometric data?

— Does Amazon conduct audits of Rekognition use by law enforcement to ensure that (1) the software is not being abused for secretive government surveillance, (2) the software is not facilitating systems that disproportionately impact people based on protected characteristics in potential violation of federal civil rights laws, and (3) the software is not being used in violation of Amazon’s terms of use?

— Is Amazon Rekognition currently integrated with any police body-camera technology or existing public-facing camera networks?

In letters sent to Amazon on July 26, 2018 and July 27, 2018, Gomez, Markey, the ACLU, and a bipartisan group of legislators “conveyed their alarm about the efficacy and constitutional impact of Amazon Rekognition on communities of color,” according to an announcement from Gomez’s office.

“To date, Amazon has failed to provide sufficient answers to their specific requests on this subject,” the announcement says.

Amazon’s response could have widespread effects on the use of facial recognition technology in corporate offices, retail stores, sports stadiums and concert arenas and many other verticals where it’s become a more popular way to better garner information about customers and prospects.

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