Amazon's plan for facial recognition laws faces skeptics

Jeff Bezos tells reporters Amazon is working on its own facial recognition regulation. Not everyone is buying it.

Alfred Ng
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.
3 min read
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said the company's policy team was working on facial recognition laws to propose to Congress.

James Martin/CNET

US lawmakers have looked at facial recognition as a bipartisan concern, calling out the technology for its privacy invasions, surveillance capabilities and artificial intelligence flaws. Members of Congress have called for regulation of the technology, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is looking to steer that ship. 

On Wednesday, Bezos made a surprise appearance before reporters at Amazon's gadgets-focused event in Seattle, where the company unveiled a list of new products, including the smart assistant-enabled Echo Frames glasses and Echo Loop ring

Bezos told reporters that his company is working on facial recognition legislation that it plans to propose to lawmakers, according to Recode and Reuters

"Our public policy team is actually working on facial recognition regulations, and it makes a lot of sense to regulate that," Bezos told reporters. "It's a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don't want to put the brakes on it. But at the same time, there's also potential for abuses of that kind of technology, so you do want regulations." 

Amazon didn't respond to a request for comment. 

On Thursday, civil rights groups raised their concerns about Amazon's push, expressing skepticism at Bezos' statement. The American Civil Liberties Union said it was a "welcome sign" that Amazon recognizes the dangers of facial recognition, but said the tech giant needs to do more than propose legislation. 

Watch this: Privacy advocates have issues with Amazon's facial recognition being used by police

"If Amazon is really interested in preventing these dangers, the first thing it should do is stop pushing surveillance tools into our communities without regard for the impact," the ACLU's senior legislative counsel, Neema Singh Guliani, said in a statement. "Lawmakers should be skeptical of weak industry proposals that sacrifice individuals rights in the interest of profit."

Amazon isn't just a retail giant promising one-day shipping. It's also cooked up technology like Rekognition, a facial recognition tool that's provided to police and has been used to spot petty crimes like shoplifting. Amazon's Ring video doorbells have also faced criticism over the company's close ties to more than 460 police departments. 

Amazon's facial recognition technology has its flaws. In August, the ACLU found that Rekognition wrongly flagged more than two dozen California lawmakers as criminals and, in another test last year, it marked 28 members of Congress as criminals. In May, a group of Amazon shareholders led an effort to ban Rekognition sales to government agencies, which failed to pass

Amazon isn't the only tech giant calling for regulation of facial recognition. Microsoft is also urging governments to enact legislation regarding the technology, warning that it could "exacerbate societal issues." But Bezos' remarks on Wednesday take it a step further.

Lawmakers have already proposed several bills on facial recognition, including legislation that would ban the technology in public housing and in businesses. The House Oversight Committee is also looking into legislation that would regulate facial recognition. 

A House Oversight committee spokesperson said that it "always welcomes legislative input from interested parties," including Amazon. 

Rep. Yvette Clarke, a Democrat from New York and one of the lawmakers behind the public housing facial recognition ban bill, hasn't seen any drafts from Amazon but hopes the company will address privacy, racial and gender bias issues with the technology.

"The congresswoman is wary of people who are governed by legislation who then try to write legislation," Clarke's spokesperson told CNET. 

Groups that have called out Amazon over Rekognition are also skeptical of any regulation that the company proposes. 

Fight for the Future, a tech-focused nonprofit, has been leading efforts in cities across the US to ban government use of facial recognition. Deputy director Evan Greer said she doesn't trust Amazon to properly regulate the technology. 

"Amazon wants to write the laws governing facial recognition to make sure they're friendly to their surveillance-driven business model," Greer said.

For many, Amazon proposing its own legislation on facial recognition echoes what tech giants have been attempting to do with proposing laws on data privacy. Many groups are concerned that Amazon intends to influence lawmakers to write legislation that will benefit the company rather than the public. 

"We can't trust the companies that have profited off of biased facial recognition systems for years to now write their own rules," said the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, Albert Fox Cahn. "Amazon's push for federal regulations is a cynical ploy to undercut the growing list of state laws that ban facial recognition like its own Rekognition system."