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Amazon announces one-year pause on police use of its facial recognition tech

The moratorium follows protests against police brutality and criticisms against Amazon's ties to law enforcement.

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
4 min read

Rekognition was being used by the Washington County Sheriff's Office in Oregon.


Amazon's facial recognition software won't be used by police for the next year, the company said Wednesday. The tech giant announced a one-year moratorium on its Rekognition tool for law enforcement, after weeks of protest against police brutality

The company will allow commercial uses of facial recognition, and uses by organizations like the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children to help find victims of human trafficking. 

"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 in a press statement. "We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested." 
The temporary ban comes days after IBM announced it's pulling out of the facial recognition market

Amazon's promotion of Rekognition to law enforcement has been controversial for multiple reasons, ranging from its low accuracy rates to how it's been used for petty crimes like shoplifting. The company's own employees have protested against Amazon offering facial recognition to law enforcement

The scrutiny came into even greater focus after multiple protests against police brutality called for defunding law enforcement, including surveillance tools like facial recognition. 

Amazon has made some public gestures against racism like donating $10 million to support social justice and black communities. But those moves rang hollow to some as the tech giant continued to provide surveillance tools to thousands of police departments. 

The company has also defended its support of facial recognition, pushing back against researchers who point out that Rekognition has racial and gender bias. Joy Buolamwini, a researcher and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, first called out Amazon over the accuracy flaws in a study published with Deborah Raji, a student at the University of Toronto. 

The announcement on Wednesday made no mention of the researchers who pointed out these flaws to Amazon, despite the fact that the company directly responded to the research in a blog post from January 2019

"The conversation has shifted and hopefully we'll move toward some level of regulation for this technology to be used," Raji said. 

But the moratorium on its own isn't enough, she noted. Amazon has spent millions on lobbying tech policy, including the use of facial recognition. In 2019, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos said the company is working on its own regulations for facial recognition, prompting concerns from privacy advocates.

"This is a very small step forward. One year is not enough to really push a lot of policy," Raji said. "I would hope that they're not going to spend the year investing in lobbyists. I hope that one year moratorium also applies to lobbying."
Amazon declined to comment beyond its blog post. 

Privacy advocates who have spoken out against Amazon are also skeptical about the moratorium -- urging Congress to push for a full ban rather than a pause. 

"Amazon has made huge sums of money by selling this dangerous and discriminatory tech to police; a one-year pause is not enough," Albert Fox Cahn, executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, said in a statement. "Amazon shouldn't just end this practice for one year or one decade, it should end it forever."

Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director with the ACLU of Northern California, said she's glad Amazon is finally recognizing "the dangers face recognition poses to black and brown communities and civil rights more broadly," even if it took two years to get here. But she also questioned the one-year timeframe. 

"This surveillance technology's threat to our civil rights and civil liberties will not disappear in a year," she added. "Amazon must fully commit to a blanket moratorium on law enforcement use of face recognition until the dangers can be fully addressed, and it must press Congress and legislatures across the country to do the same."

Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, agreed that the moratorium was not enough. He also directed attention toward Amazon's other surveillance investments like its Ring video doorbells and its hundreds of partnerships with police. 

"Pressing pause on the use of this technology by law enforcement is a positive step, but what Amazon should really do is a complete about-face and get out of the business of dangerous surveillance altogether," Markey said in a statement. "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."

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