Jeff Bezos made a surprise appearance at an Amazon press reception Wednesday evening to introduce singer-songwriter Charlie Puth to the crowd — but before he made his way to the stage, the Amazon CEO made some unexpected news on the issue of regulating facial recognition.
“Good regulation in this arena would be very welcome I think by all the players,” Bezos said in response to a question from one of the reporters who crowded around him. “It makes a lot of sense for there to be some standards in how this all works, and that kind of stability would be probably healthy for the whole industry. It’s a perfect example of where regulation is needed.”
What’s more, Bezos said, “Our public policy team is actually working on facial recognition regulation.”
“It makes a lot of sense,” he said. “It’s a perfect example of something of that has really positive uses, so you don’t want to put the brakes on it. At the same time there’s lots of potential for abuses of that technology, so you do want regulation.”
Facial recognition is one of the biggest areas where Amazon has come under scrutiny from privacy and civil rights activists, largely because of the use of its Rekognition technology by law enforcement.
It’s the first time Bezos has spoken so directly about regulation, but it’s consistent with the company’s policy direction. Amazon started coming around to regulation of the technology earlier this year.
Amazon Web Services Public Policy VP Michael Punke published a blog post in February outlining six guidelines for facial recognition. He called for higher standards for law enforcement use of the technology, such as a 99 percent confidence score, a measure of the software’s faith in a match.
The blog post said the law should require humans to review all facial recognition results in a law enforcement setting. Amazon also believes people should be notified when facial recognition is used in public or commercial spaces and called for standardized methods to test accuracy and bias.
The reception where Bezos made the comments followed Amazon’s unveiling of new Echo speakers and other Alexa-powered devices earlier in the day. Voice technologies are another source of privacy concerns, and Amazon devices and services chief Dave Limp spent several minutes at the outset of his presentation outlining the company’s efforts to provide customers with privacy controls.
Amazon’s practice of selling its Rekognition software to police rankles civil rights groups, like the ACLU, who worry the technology will negatively impact over-policed communities. The ACLU and other researchers have published studies that show facial recognition technology misidentifies women and people of color more frequently because of the training data the software is fed.
Lawmakers in Amazon’s home state, Washington, tried to enact a bill that would have established new guardrails on facial recognition but the effort failed to pass the legislature this year. Microsoft was a supporter of the bill. Amazon did not advocate for the bill, which included additional regulations to govern data privacy.
Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president, said that he believed the legal framework established in the state would become the de facto standard globally because Microsoft and Amazon would have been subject to the state law.