Amazon Urges ‘Transparency’ In Law Enforcement Use Of Face Recognition

Amazon has said it supports “transparency” in the use of face recognition by law enforcement agencies and would support an “appropriate” legislative framework governing the technology to protect civil rights.

The company’s comments are the latest to address controversies around the use of automated face recognition technology by law enforcement, which is seen by some as infringing on citizens’ rights, for instance in cases where it may misidentify individuals.

The technology is particularly prone to misidentify people of different ethnicities, civil liberties groups argue.

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has been under pressure by such groups since it began selling Rekognition, an AI-powered image identification tool, to governments in 2016.

Public notice

In the company’s most detailed response to critics so far, AWS’ vice president of global public policy, Michael Punke, said agencies should notify the public when face recognition and video surveillance are used together in public or commercial settings, such as shopping malls.

He outlined other points in the “responsible” use of face recognition software, saying it should comply with all laws, including those that protect civil rights, and that law enforcement should detail privacy safeguards in regular reports.

In cases where AI is used to identify people for investigative purposes, he said the confidence threshhold should be set to 99 percent.

The threshhold is the minimum precision a system must achieve in order to be considered correct.

“Over the past several months, we’ve talked to customers, researchers, academics, policymakers, and others to understand how to best balance the benefits of facial recognition with the potential risks,” Punke wrote.

“It’s critical that any legislation protect civil rights while also allowing for continued innovation and practical application of the technology… We encourage policymakers to consider these guidelines as potential legislation and rules are considered in the US and other countries.”

UK trials

He said new technology “should not be banned or condemned because of its potential misuse”.

Punke said Amazon is engaging with the US’ National Institute of Standards and Technology on the possibility of standardised accuracy tests for face recognition.

But he said it is not yet possible for third parties to download its algorithms for testing purposes.

Amazon’s comments follow those of Microsoft, which also last month urged customers to be transparent in their use of face recognition.

Police deployed face recognition in central London as part of ongoing trials of the technology, but privacy group Big Brother Watch said such monitoring in public was “a breach of fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of speech and assembly”.

In the UK the technology has previously been trialled at a Champions League final in Cardiff amongst other locations.

Police say it can be used to identify people who are wanted by the justice system, but Big Brother Watch said it has returned a “staggering” proportion of false positives.

The UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) began a probe into police use of face recognition in November, with information commissioner Elizabeth Denham saying the technology could be “particularly intrusive” inspite of its “significant public safety benefits”.

Big Brother Watch said it was “fighting this for all the people who don’t want to be walking ID cards in a surveilled nation”.

Matthew Broersma

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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