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Lawmakers say Amazon’s facial recognition software may be racially biased and harm free expression

Amazon has “failed to provide sufficient answers” about its controversial facial recognition software, Rekognition — and lawmakers won’t take the company’s usual silent treatment for an answer.
The letter, signed by eight lawmakers — including Sen. Edward Markey and Reps. John Lewis and Judy Chu — called on Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos to explain how the company’s technology works — and where it will be used.
It comes after the cloud and retail giant secured several high-profile contracts with the U.S. government and at least one major metropolitan city — including Orlando, Florida — for surveillance.
The lawmakers said that they expressed a “heightened concern given recent reports that Amazon is actively marketing its biometric technology to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as other reports of pilot programs lacking any hands-on training from Amazon for participating law enforcement officers.”
They also said that the system suffers from accuracy issues — which could lead to racial bias, and could harm citizens’ constitutional rights to free expression.
“However, at this time, we have serious concerns that this type of product has significant accuracy issues, places disproportionate burdens on communities of color, and could stifle Americans’ willingness to exercise their First Amendment rights in public,” the letter said.
The lawmakers want Amazon to explain how Amazon tests for accuracy and if those tests have been independently verified — and how the company tests for bias.

Instead of plugging their ears, Amazon needs to take responsibility for the grave threat that face surveillance poses to everyone, and especially to people of color, immigrants, and activists.
Rekognition should not be in the hands of police or ICE. Period. https://t.co/Km4l7YPXxn
— ACLU of Northern CA (@ACLU_NorCal) November 29, 2018

It comes after the ACLU found that the software failed to facially recognize 28 members of Congress, with a higher failure rate towards people of color.
The facial recognition software has been controversial from the start. Even after concerns from its own employees, Amazon said it would push ahead and sell the technology regardless.
Amazon has a little over two weeks to respond to the lawmakers. A spokesperson for Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

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