Facial recognition software is coming under increasing scrutiny from civil liberties groups and lawmakers. Now Amazon, one of the most visible purveyors of the technology, is facing pressure from another corner as well: its own shareholders.
As part of Amazon’s annual meeting in Seattle on Wednesday, investors will vote on whether the tech giant’s aggressive push to spread the surveillance software threatens civil rights — and, as a consequence, the company’s reputation and profits.
Shareholders have introduced two proposals on facial recognition for a vote. One asks the company to prohibit sales of its facial recognition system, called Amazon Rekognition, to government agencies, unless its board concludes that the technology does not facilitate human rights violations. The other asks the company to commission an independent report examining the extent to which Rekognition may threaten civil, human and privacy rights, and the company’s finances.
“This piece of equipment that Amazon has fostered and developed and is really propagating at this point doesn’t seem to us to be in the best interest of the common good,” said Sister Pat Mahoney, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a religious community in Brentwood, New York, that is an Amazon investor and introduced the proposed sales ban. “Facial recognition all over the place just makes everyone live in a police state.”
The proposals are nonbinding, meaning they do not require the company to take action, even if they receive a majority vote.
Amazon fought to prevent the votes on facial surveillance. In a letter to the Securities and Exchange Commission in January, the company said that it was not aware of any reported misuse of Rekognition by law enforcement customers. It also argued that the technology did not present a financial risk because it was just one of the more than 165 services Amazon offered.
The agency disagreed, ultimately requiring Amazon to allow the facial surveillance resolutions to proceed.
In a statement, Amazon said it offered clear guidelines on using Rekognition for public safety — including a recommendation that law enforcement agencies have humans review any possible facial matches suggested by its system. The company added that its customers had used Rekognition for beneficial purposes, including identifying more than 3,000 victims of human trafficking.