When it comes to publicly pushing back against an ever-encroaching police state, the devil is in the details — or, in Amazon’s case, the lack of them.
Amazon announced Wednesday — in the most passive voice possible — that, for a year, police will no longer have access to its controversial facial-recognition tool dubbed Rekognition. Without mentioning the Black Lives Matter movement or the police abuses that followed the killing of George Floyd, the company blandly advocated for generic “regulations” to govern the biased technology.
What Amazon did not say, however, is perhaps more important than what it did. Nowhere in the short statement did Amazon specify when the moratorium would start. Is it effective immediately, or at some future date? Nowhere did the company provide clarity as to which police departments this moratorium would affect. Is it limited to police forces in the US, or does it affect the entire world?
Amazon also did not elaborate on how this “moratorium” would be enforced. Are existing programs being shuttered? If so, which? Does this mean that, until the moratorium has passed, no future contracts or agreements with police will be pursued?
We reached out to Amazon with a host of clarifying questions about the announcement, but received no answers.
“We’re not saying anything further at this time,” read the company’s emailed reply.
As for Amazon’s actual announcement? See for yourself.
“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,” reads the second paragraph of Amazon’s two-paragraph statement. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
Notably, it was just May of last year when Amazon rejected a shareholder-led effort to stop sales of Rekognition to governments around the world. The preceding January, a coalition of more than 85 different groups, including civil liberty organizations, human rights groups, and justice system reform advocates, sent an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos imploring the company to stop selling its facial-recognition tech to law enforcement.
“In a world with face surveillance, people will have to fear being watched and targeted by the government for attending a protest, congregating outside a place of worship, or simply living their lives,” the letter reads. “Instead of acting to protect against the very real dangers of face surveillance, your company is ignoring community concerns and further pushing this technology into the hands of government agencies.”
As of at least last year, the FBI was known to be using Rekognition in some capacity. Amazon has also pitched Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to use Rekognition, according to a 2018 report from The Daily Beast.
In response to today’s announcement, Nicole Ozer, the technology and civil liberties director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, released a statement critiquing Amazon for only taking a solitary baby step.
“This surveillance technology’s threat to our civil rights and civil liberties will not disappear in a year,” wrote Ozer. “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.”
Whether today’s announcement represents the beginning of a sea change at Amazon or a mealy-mouthed half-measure timed to feign progressivism in the coming age of police reform remains to be seen. The company’s light-on-details announcement, however, doesn’t inspire much hope.