‘Rekognizing’ the Harm: Amazon’s Facial Recognition Dilemma

Author: Mandeep Raj | UC Berkeley School of Law | J.D.  Candidate 2020 | Posted: February 25, 2020 | Download PDF.

Amazon has increasingly come under fire for selling and marketing facial recognition technology to U.S. law enforcement.[1] Local law enforcement in some U.S. jurisdictions already use the technology, and last year Amazon pitched the technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.[2] Amazon and proponents of the technology contend that facial recognition can be beneficial to society in many ways, such as empowering law enforcement to find victims of sex trafficking, finding suspected criminals more quickly, and enhancing security and deterring crime at major public use areas like airports.[3]

However, despite the positives of facial recognition technology, there is growing evidence to suggest that this technology can be used in oppressive ways, especially towards minorities and political dissidents. In 2018, a Freedom House report indicated that the Chinese government used facial recognition technology to monitor the Uighur population, a religious minority in China, in order to thwart any actions deemed to harm “public order” or “national security.”[4] Recently, U.S. officials have criticized China’s treatment of the Uighur population, estimating that roughly three out of ten million Uighurs are being held in “concentration camps.”[5] The same Freedom House report indicated that among eighteen countries that used facial recognition technology, sixteen of those surveyed were considered “partially free” or “not free.”[6] Furthermore, in Hong Kong, protestors are using electric saws to take down street cameras believed to have facial recognition technology in fear that their identity may be used against them in the future.[7] While facial recognition technology does not cause abuse, it is clear that there are legitimate worries that it can enable abuse in the wrong hands.

A compounding factor in this entire debate is how profitable facial recognition technology is. In 2016, the global facial recognition market was valued at $3.01 billion and is estimated to reach $9.58 billion by 2022, with government being the largest user of this technology.[8] In August, Megvii, a Beijing-based company that sells facial recognition technology for commercial and government use, filed for an initial public offering targeting $500 million to $1 billion.[9] Prior to Megvii’s IPO it secured $750 million, and currently Megvii is valued slightly over $4 billion.[10]

Fortunately, it seems that Amazon does see the potential ethical hazard raised by facial recognition technology. Last week, Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon’s public policy team is currently working on facial recognition laws it plans to submit to lawmakers.[11] No details of Amazon’s proposals have emerged. One can guess that some of these proposals may limit the sale of facial recognition technology to governments, especially authoritarian governments. However, given how profitable facial recognition technology is, and that Amazon shareholders have already denied a shareholder proposal banning Amazon from selling its Rekognition technology to governments,[12] Amazon will likely find itself in a dilemma. Amazon will either have to sponsor regulations that limit its ability to sell lucrative facial recognition technology to certain parties or possibly complicit in a market that has real human rights implications.

[1] Guliani, Neema Singh, Amazon Met With ICE Officials to Market its Facial Recognition Product, ACLU: https://www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/surveillance-technologies/amazon-met-ice-officials-market-its-facial

[2] Id.

[3] Marr, Bernard, Facial Recognition Technology: Here Are The Important Pros and Cons, Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2019/08/19/facial-recognition-technology-here-are-the-important-pros-and-cons/#63e54dc14d16

[4] Adrian Shabaz, The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism, Freedom House, October 2018, 1,6. https://freedomhouse.org/sites/default/files/FOTN_2018_Final%20Booklet_11_1_2018.pdf

[5] Phil Stewart, China Putting Minority Muslims in “concentration camps” U.S. Says, Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-concentrationcamps/china-putting-minority-muslims-in-concentration-camps-us-says-idUSKCN1S925K

[6] Shabaz at 9.

[7] Zak Doffman, Hong Kong Exposes Both Sides of China’s Relentless Facial Recognition Machine, Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2019/08/26/hong-kong-exposes-both-sides-of-chinas-relentless-facial-recognition-machine/#4758c3f642b7\

[8] Allied Market Research, Global Facial Recognition Market to Garner $9.58 Billion By 2022 At 21.3% CAGR, Says AMR. https://www.globenewswire.com/news-release/2019/06/03/1863369/0/en/Global-Facial-Recognition-Market-to-Garner-9-58-Billion-By-2022-At-21-3-CAGR-Says-AMR.html

[9] Doffman,  Hong Kong Exposes Both Sides of China’s Relentless Facial Recognition Machine, Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2019/08/26/hong-kong-exposes-both-sides-of-chinas-relentless-facial-recognition-machine/#4758c3f642b7\

[10] Id.

[11] Jason Del Rey, Jeff Bezos says Amazon is Writing its Own Facial Recognition Laws to Pitch to Lawmakers, Vox. https://www.vox.com/recode/2019/9/25/20884427/jeff-bezos-amazon-facial-recognition-draft-legislation-regulation-rekognition

[12] Matt Day, Amazon Facial Recognition Shareholder Proposals are Voted Down, Forbes. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-05-22/amazon-facial-recognition-shareholder-proposals-are-voted-down