Call to Limit the Sale of Amazon’s Facial Recognition Rejected

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Amazon shareholders have voted to reject calls to limit sales of the company’s facial recognition technology to law enforcement and government agencies. 

Amazon investors have voted down two proposals put forward at the company’s annual general meeting. Although a breakdown of the vote has yet to be released, the result indicates that less than 50% voted in favour of the proposals.

The vote comes amid growing concern over the use of facial recognition technology, with San Francisco, the epicentre of the tech industry, taking the landmark decision to ban its use in the city.

Initial proposals recommended the company stop selling its Rekognition software to government and law enforcement agencies amid concerns over the infringement of civil and human rights. The second called for the retail giant to commission an independent report on the impact of government use of the software and to ascertain if it threatened people’s civil rights.

The vote, which Amazon’s board tried to block, would have been non-binding, meaning executives would not have had to act on the results either way.

Recommending against the proposal, Amazon’s board said: “In the two-plus years Amazon has been offering Rekognition, it has not received a single report of Amazon Rekognition being used in the harmful manner posited in the proposal, but is aware of many beneficial purposes, including by law enforcement to help improve public safety.

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“We recognise that users of our technology, as with any technology, could also misuse [it], just as laptop computers, mobile phones or cameras can be misused… however, we do not believe that the potential for customers to misuse results generated by Rekognition should prevent us from making it available.”

Undeterred by the result, Mary Beth Gallagher from the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment told the BBC: “This is just the beginning of this movement for us and this campaign will continue. We have built links to civil rights groups, employees and other stakeholders.

“And the most important thing is that regardless of the result, we still want the board to halt sales of Rekognition to governments, and it has the capacity to do that”.

The American Civil Liberties Union says that the fact there was a vote was “an embarrassment to Amazon” and should serve as a “wake-up call for the company to reckon with the real harms of face surveillance”.

Amazon has yet to comment on the vote, but its AGM notes state: “[Rekognition is] a powerful tool…for law enforcement and government agencies to catch criminals, prevent crime, and find missing people. New technology should not be banned or condemned because of its potential misuse”.

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The use of facial recognition technology has faced increasing opposition from civil liberties groups and hundreds of Amazon’s own workers. At the ballot, workers and critics of Rekognition protested outside the meeting.

In addition to voting down the sale of its facial recognition technology, investors also rejected a measure urging Amazon to change how it reports gender pay gaps and to report on its carbon footprint and fossil fuel usage.



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