Rep. Gomez demands answers from Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos on facial recognition

Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos Tuesday asking questions about exactly how the company plans to implement a one-year moratorium on facial recognition sales to police. Amazon announced the moratorium in a brief blog post one week ago today. Rep. Gomez is vice chair of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which plans to introduce facial recognition legislation.

“While I am encouraged by the direction Amazon appears to be taking on this issue, the ambiguity of the announcement raises more questions than answers,” Rep. Gomez said in the letter. “After two years of formal congressional inquiries — including bicameral letters, House Oversight Committee hearings, and in-person meetings — Amazon has yet to adequately address questions about the dangers its facial recognition technology can pose to privacy and civil rights, the accuracy of the technology, and its disproportionate impact on communities of color.”

The letter includes a range of questions about Amazon’s moratorium, like whether it only applies to local law enforcement or extends to federal law enforcement contracts with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). After the moratorium was announced last week, VentureBeat also asked Amazon whether a moratorium extends to contracts with federal law enforcement agencies but received no comment.

The letter also asks when Amazon plans to submit Rekognition for evaluation by the Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). A NIST spokesperson last week told VentureBeat that Amazon has yet to submit Rekognition or any other algorithm for review under its Facial Recognition Vendor Test program. Previous NIST analysis, as well as audits by the Gender Shades project in 2018, found that facial recognition systems generally work best on White men and worst on women with dark skin.

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The letter Rep. Gomez sent Tuesday returns to a line of questioning from members of Congress about Amazon’s facial recognition system that’s continued since 2018 when more than 20 other members of Congress, including prominent members of the Congressional Black Caucus like Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-NY), and Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), sent their own inquiry letter. The July 2018 letter voiced concern about how the technology was twice as likely to misidentify members of Congress who are people of color as criminals as it was White members of Congress. A bicameral letter, led by longtime privacy advocate Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), was also sent in November 2018.

In an interview with VentureBeat last week, Rep. Gomez reacted to news that Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft halted facial recognition sales to varying degrees. He also described how being personally identified as a criminal by Amazon’s Recognition in 2018 motivated him to act, but that nearly a dozen meetings with Amazon yielded few results. Rep. Gomez said the House Oversight and Reform Committee will introduce facial recognition regulation by the end of the year, possibly including a moratorium on federal law enforcement use of the technology, but Congress needs more information about Amazon’s activity in order to understand how to regulate the technology.

In all, the letter sent Tuesday repeats 11 questions previously posed to Amazon. The list includes what effort, if any, Amazon puts into helping customers including law enforcement avoid violation of Amazon terms of use or policies; what internal bias assessments take place at Amazon; and whether Amazon conducts any internal evaluations of law enforcement use of facial recognition, as well as requesting more information about Amazon’s surveillance partnerships with police departments.

“Corporations have been quick to share expressions of support for the Black Lives Matter movement following the public outrage over the murders of Black Americans like George Floyd at the hands of police. Unfortunately, too many of these gestures have been performative at best. Calling on Congress to regulate facial recognition technology is one of these gestures. However, Amazon — as a global leader in technology and innovation — has a unique opportunity before them to put substantive action behind their sentiments of ‘solidarity with the Black community’ by not selling a flawed product to police, and instead, play a critical role in ending systemic racism in our nation’s criminal justice system,” the letter reads.

VentureBeat has reached out to Amazon for comment in response to questions raised in the letter. In other Amazon-related news, earlier this week Bezos agreed to testify before the House Judiciary Committee to address questions related to potential violations of antitrust law.

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