A group of artificial intelligence researchers — including this year’s winner of the Turing Award — issued a joint statement Wednesday calling on Amazon Web Services to stop all sales of its Recokgnition facial-recognition technology to law enforcement agencies.
In a letter posted to Medium, the researchers detailed flaws in earlier responses from AWS to critics that issued similar calls after Rekognition was used by police departments in Orlando and suburban Portland for law enforcement purposes. Those critics “rightly (raise) the alarm on using such immature technologies in high stakes scenarios without a public debate and legislation in place to ensure that civil rights are not infringed,” according to the post.
Around 25 prominent artificial intelligence experts lent their names to the letter, including University of Montreal professor and Microsoft advisor Yoshua Bengio, winner of this year’s Turing Award for technological achievement. Microsoft Research’s Hal Daumé III and Caltech’s Anima Anandkumar, former chief scientist at AWS, joined representatives from Google, Facebook, and several prominent U.S. universities calling on AWS to withdraw Rekognition from the law enforcement market until “legislation and safeguards” are in place to protect civil liberties from the often-biased algorithms used in such systems.
AWS has been playing defense on this issue for almost a year after the ACLU called on the company to stop selling Rekognition to law-enforcement agencies last May, but Wednesday’s letter was prompted by a peer-reviewed study released in January showing that Rekognition was more error-prone than similar facial-recognition technology from IBM and Microsoft.
After that study was released, Matt Wood, general manager of deep learning and AI for AWS, and Vice President for Public Policy Michael Punke wrote two blog posts defending the company’s technology and arguing that there are lots of benefits from law-enforcement use of facial recognition. The researchers behind Wednesday’s letter didn’t buy those arguments: “Caution, concern, and rigorous evaluation — sensitive to the intersecting demographics that affect human-centric computer vision for images — are even more pressing when considering products that are used in scenarios that severely impact people’s lives, such as law enforcement,” they wrote.
Microsoft has called for federal regulation of facial-recognition technology several times in the past year, and is supporting a bill under consideration in Washington state requiring companies selling facial-recognition technology to open it up to third parties for testing and evaluation of potential biases. Amazon is also working with state regulators on potential legislation.
On Thursday, the SEC ruled that Amazon will have to let shareholders vote on a proposal to force the company to halt sales of Rekognition to the government, according to The Verge. Shareholder proposals tend to fall flat at big tech companies controlled mostly by insiders, but the vote could be a marker of how widespread opposition to Amazon’s Rekognition policies really is.
[Editor’s note: This post was updated with new information about the SEC’s shareholder proposal ruling.]