Outrage over police brutality has finally convinced Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM to rule out selling facial recognition tech to law enforcement. Here's what's going on.
Activists have been campaigning against the police, who have access to facial recognition software, for years.
Matthew Horwood / Getty Images
IBM, Amazon and Microsoft have all committed to, at least temporarily, not selling face recognition to law enforcement agencies.
While activists have been campaigning for companies to do so for years, the Black Lives Matter movement seems to have been the deciding factor.
As facial recognition spreads to catch criminals, illegal immigrants, or terrorists, there is growing concern about how the technology could be misused.
Each company subtly issued different sales bans.
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Three of the world's largest technology companies have withdrawn from the sale of face recognition to law enforcement agencies in the face of ongoing protests against police brutality.
IBM announced on Monday that the sale of "general purpose" face recognition will be discontinued. Amazon announced on Wednesday that the sale of its facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies will be put on hold for a year. Microsoft followed suit on Thursday, saying it does not sell facial recognition technology to U.S. police forces and will not do so until technology adoption laws are passed.
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It's a kind of U-turn as activists and scientists work to ensure that companies don't sell face recognition to law enforcement agencies, as this has exacerbated racial injustice for years.
Face recognition is becoming increasingly popular for government and law enforcement agencies to track down criminals, terrorists, or illegal immigrants. But with the protests against Black Lives Matter spreading around the world after George Floyd's death, there are now new demands on major technology companies to stop selling the technology to the police.
The long-standing argument put forward by civil rights groups and AI experts is that face recognition disproportionately affects people with color in two ways.
First, like any police instrument operated by systemic racist societies or institutions, it is inevitably used to target colored people more often.
Second, the data used to create facial recognition software is racially biased, making it more likely to misidentify women and colored people, which in turn would result in more illegal arrests. This is because the data sets used to train face recognition algorithms often consist mostly of images of white men.
Here's a breakdown of exactly what each company promised:
IBM CEO Arvind Krishna.
Photo by Brian Ach / Getty Images for Wired
IBM was the first of the three companies to announce that it took its foot off the pedal when it came to face recognition, and it was the most permanent.
CEO Arvind Krishna announced this on June 8 in a letter to Congress members, including Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
"IBM no longer offers universal IBM facial recognition or analysis software," wrote Krishna. "IBM strongly opposes and will not tolerate the use of technologies, including third party facial recognition technologies, for mass surveillance, racial profiles, violations of fundamental human rights and freedoms."
He added that IBM had hoped to launch a "national dialogue" on law enforcement use of face recognition.
The announcement was welcomed by many, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Contact @IBM because you have stopped developing technologies that are proven to harm society.
Face detection is a terrible, inaccurate tool that promotes racial profiles and mass surveillance. It regularly misidentifies Black + Brown people as criminals.
It shouldn't be near law enforcement.
The Associated Press
IBM is leaving face recognition business, saying it is concerned about how the technology can be used for mass surveillance and racial profiling.
1:43 - June 11, 2020
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Experts with whom Business Insider spoke said it was a step in the right direction, but the language IBM used in its announcement gave it room to potentially sell facial recognition technologies in the future.
Eva Blum-Dumontet, a senior researcher at Privacy International who specializes in IBM, told Business Insider that the sale of "all-purpose" software will be discontinued to give the company room to develop custom software for customers.
"We need to see what this means in practice. It should be borne in mind that much of the work that IBM does is actually tailor-made for their customers, so it is possible that IBM may not see the end of facial recognition on everything in everything they just change the label, "said Blum-Dumontet.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon
REUTERS / Joshua Roberts
Even if IBM's announcement was cynically motivated or secured, it was at least the first domino to fall.
Amazon announced on June 10 that it was suspending the sale of its face recognition software Rekognition to law enforcement for a year.
"We have been in favor of governments adopting stricter rules to regulate the ethical use of facial recognition technologies, and Congress seems to be ready to face the challenge in the past few days. We hope that this one-year moratorium on Congress leaves enough time to implement appropriate rules and we are ready to help on request, "Amazon said in its announcement.
The ACLU said the one-year hiatus did not go far enough. "The threat to our civil rights and civil liberties from this surveillance technology will not go away in a year," said Nicole Ozer, director of technology and civil liberties at ACLU, in a press release.
Dr. Nakeema Stefflbauer, an expert on AI ethics policy, told Business Insider that while Amazon's statement is a step in the right direction, it does not appeal to all police authorities that already have the software. "It would be far better than stopping further sales to recall the software as a whole, as is usually the case with other defective or unreliable products," said Stefflbauer.
Andy Jassy, head of Amazon Web Services at Amazon, said in an interview in February 2020 that the company does not know how many police officers have bought recognition.
Recognition has been particularly carefully checked by activists in the past. In July 2018, the ACLU tested the software on congress members. During the test, Rekognition confused 28 colored Congressmen with arrested people. MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini also published an article in January 2019 that found that recognition was consistently worse in identifying faces of women and black people.
Amazon's response was that activists and researchers did not pay enough attention to the "trust threshold" of the software, a percentage that spits out how safe it is to have identified the right person. However, when the tool was sold to the police, it was reported that the police officers also ignored the tool's trust threshold and even guided composite sketches and photos of celebrities through the system in search of suspects.
Microsoft President Brad Smith.
Pedro Fiúza / NurPhoto via Getty Images
Microsoft's president, Brad Smith, said in an interview with the Washington Post on Thursday, June 11, that Microsoft does not sell facial recognition technology to U.S. police officers and is committed to selling them only after a national law on use has been introduced .
"The most important point I really want to underline is this: we really need to use this moment to have a strong national law on facial recognition that is based on the protection of human rights," said Smith.
Washington Post Live
According to Microsoft President @BradSmi, the company does not sell facial recognition software to police stations. in the US today and will not sell the tools to the police until there is a national law "based on human rights". #postlive
7:26 PM - June 11, 2020
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This happened two days after more than 250 Microsoft employees released an open letter asking the company to more generally cut off relationships with police forces.
Without a legal framework, other companies could fill the gap.
Smith warned that giants like Microsoft, Amazon, and IBM, which are completely withdrawing from face recognition, could cause smaller companies to fill the vacuum.
"If all responsible companies in the country cede this market to those who are unwilling to take a stand, we will not necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of this nation's black and African American people. We Congress must act, not only Technology companies alone, "he said.
Dr. Nakeema Stefflbauer expressed similar concerns that lesser known police companies could announce facial recognition.
"From the US perspective, these announcements confirm the serious damage that unregulated facial recognition technology has already done to law enforcement hands for Black and other [minority] groups," said Stefflbauer.
Dr. Steffblauer added that smaller vendors such as Clearview, Kairos and PredPol could continue to sell facial recognition technologies in both the US and the EU without new laws.
She added: "In my opinion, this is the moment when US and EU governments have to take technology regulations seriously and pass comprehensive laws: if not, this is nothing more than permission for an uncontrolled attack on the Human Rights."
In an email to Business Insider, Joy Buolamwini, who was concerned with bias in Amazon's facial recognition technology, also stressed the need for a legal framework.
"We cannot rely on self-regulation or hope that companies will choose to harm the technologies they develop," she said.
"The first step is to take a break, not just across the company, but across the country."
This is still a big change in the attitude of technology companies.
MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini was one of the key activists who put technology companies under pressure to stop selling facial recognition software to the police.
"Scientists and activists like Joy Buolamwini, Dr. Timnit Gebru, and Deb Raji are not alone in their pursuit of fairness and accountability in large-scale technologies. But the turnaround of large technology companies is really breathtaking attacks and trials given the incredible to discredit those women who originally came across their research, "said Stefflbauer.
"It should not be the responsibility of members of a discriminated group to prove that commercial technology used by millions of people is wrongly attacking and harassing them, but that has been the case so far."
In her email to Business Insider, Joy Buolamwini said that technology giants should put more emphasis on promoting racial equality.
"I also urge all companies that will benefit significantly from AI, including IBM, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Apple, to each invest at least $ 1 million to promote racial justice in the technology industry."
"The money should be used directly as an unrestricted gift to support organizations like the Algorithmic Justice League, Black in AI, and Data for Black Lives that have been leading this work for years. Racial justice requires algorithmic justice."
Not everyone is convinced that technology companies act in good faith.
Activist groups and scientists have largely welcomed companies' decision to take a break from selling their technology to the police, although not everyone is convinced that the move is ethical.
"It appears that companies are using this moment to grasp goodwill so they can write federal facial recognition regulations," Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign director at Mijente civil rights group told Business Insider.
"We cannot allow their lobbyists to write these rules so that businesses can benefit from black and brown communities. Face recognition is a very dangerous technology that continues to suppress racist policing in the people who have long been at the receiving end United States. "
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