In a letter sent to CEO Jeff Bezos last week, more than a dozen Amazon shareholders are reportedly pressuring the company to drop law-enforcement agencies as clients. The concerns stem specifically from Amazon’s Rekognition program, which offers powerful facial recognition to customers. Customers like, say, law-enforcement organizations in Florida and Oregon.
In one case, the Washington County [Oregon] sheriff’s office identified persons of interest, including a shoplifter caught on a hardware store’s cameras. The store camera’s image was automatically compared with thousands of photos of individuals processed while entering jail. This speeds up a process that used to rely on manual labor and the memory of police officers to identify people.
The case the shareholders are making is basically that Amazon’s stock price might dip if their technology is used to help commit civil-rights and human-rights violations. The shareholders are concerned that the software may be used “to unfairly and disproportionately target and surveil people of color, immigrants, and civil society organizations,” and that it might be used by “authoritarian regimes.”
“You just provide an image or video to the Rekognition API, and the service can identify the objects, people, text, scenes, and activities, as well as detect any inappropriate content,” the company says on the product page. “Amazon Rekognition also provides highly accurate facial analysis and facial recognition on images and video that you provide.”
Whether or not investor pressure will have any effect remains to be seen. In recent years, tech companies have had to work more aggressively to balance their mostly liberal outward appearance with acquiring and retaining lucrative government contracts. Google recently bowed to pressure over its work on a Department of Defense AI project, but that pressure came internally, from the employees who would have had to actually do the work, and not from investors pressuring the CEO.