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Amazon owes answers on facial recognition moratorium, lawmaker says

A House representative mistaken by Rekognition as a criminal is questioning CEO Jeff Bezos about Amazon's one-year pause on facial recognition.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
2 min read

A lawmaker is demanding answers on Amazon's moratorium on Rekognition.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Amazon's move to stop providing facial recognition to law enforcement until June 2021 has left more questions than answers. The company's announcement, limited to 102 words in a blog post, left out a lot of details on what the moratorium actually means, and a House representative is demanding answers from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. 

In a letter sent to Bezos and Amazon on Wednesday, Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a Democrat from California, is asking the company to provide specific details on its moratorium, like if the pause applies to federal law enforcement agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and if Amazon would stop developing facial recognition during that time. 

Gomez was among the 28 members of Congress mistaken by Amazon's facial recognition for a criminal in an American Civil Liberties Union study in 2018. Facial recognition has been shown to have racial and gender bias in its detections, raising concerns that police use could result in wrongful arrests and convictions. 

That's prompted activists to call for bans on facial recognition in protests against police brutality sparked by the May 25 death of George Floyd. Companies like IBM, Microsoft and Amazon have responded by changing their facial recognition policies, but lawmakers are skeptical that this will actually lead to change in the industry

"Corporations have been quick to share expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the public outrage over the murders of black Americans like George Floyd at the hands of police," Gomez said in the letter. "Unfortunately, too many of these gestures have been performative at best. Calling on Congress to regulate facial recognition technology is one of these gestures." 

Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment. 

The letter is also resurfacing questions from Congress that Amazon failed to answer on multiple occasions. In July 2018, five members of Congress demanded answers from Amazon about Rekognition, followed up with another letter in November 2018

Gomez's letter includes questions on how Amazon is making sure its facial recognition tools aren't abused by law enforcement agencies, if the company has internal tests for racial and gender bias, if Rekognition is used with any police body cameras, and why the company is marketing its technology to ICE. 

Amazon's partnerships with police departments aren't just a concern for lawmakers -- the company's shareholders in May 2019 proposed banning Rekognition sales to government agencies, but the proposals failed to pass.

Lawmakers have also called out Amazon's Ring for its police partnerships allowing access to Ring's video doorbell footage. Those partnerships have expanded to more than 1,360 departments across the US. Following Amazon's moratorium on Rekognition, activist groups and members of Congress also demanded the company end its Ring police network. 

Watch this: How to protect your phone (and your privacy) at a protest

"That means also making wholesale changes to its Amazon Ring products and Neighbors app because the policies governing those offerings are an open door for privacy and civil liberty violations," said Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, in a statement on June 11.