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Community leaders asked Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to police at the company’s Seattle headquarters in 2018. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon will ban police use of its facial recognition software for one year, in an abrupt reversal that shows how quickly the dynamics of law enforcement technology are shifting.

Police use of Amazon’s Rekognition software has been a subject of criticism by civil rights groups for years but Amazon repeatedly defended the merits of the technology in law enforcement. The company changed its tune in a brief blog post published Wednesday.

“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” Amazon said. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

The announcement comes two days after IBM said it would wind down its facial recognition products in response to the national racial justice movement.

Studies by the ACLU and MIT, over the past few years, showed facial recognition software misidentifies women and people of color more frequently than white men, leading to concerns that the technology will disproportionately impact communities that are already over-surveilled. Amazon disputed the findings of those reports, but a federal study published in December added weight to the concerns of civil rights groups. It found Asian and African American people were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified than white men, according to The Washington Post.

“It took two years for Amazon to get to this point, but we’re glad the company is finally recognizing the dangers face recognition poses to Black and Brown communities and civil rights more broadly,” said the ACLU of Northern California’s Nicole Ozer in a statement.

“We urge Microsoft and other companies to join IBM, Google, and Amazon in moving towards the right side of history,” she added.

Amazon said it would continue to allow organizations like Thorn, the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and Marinus Analytics to use Rekognition “to help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families” in the announcement.

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