Amazon, Google, and Microsoft Are at Odds on the Dangers of Face Recognition. One of Them Is on the Right Path.

This was originally published by USA Today.

A top Google executive recently sent a shot across the bow of its competitors regarding face surveillance. Kent Walker, the company's general counsel and senior vice president of global affairs, made it clear that Google — unlike Amazon and Microsoft — will not sell a face recognition product until the technology's potential for abuse is addressed.

Face recognition, powered by artificial intelligence, could allow the government to supercharge surveillance by automating identification and tracking. Authorities could use it to track protesters, target vulnerable communities (such as immigrants), and create digital policing in communities of color that are already subject to pervasive police monitoring.

So how are the world's biggest technology companies responding to this serious threat to privacy, safety and civil rights? Google at least appears to be taking the risks seriously with its recent announcement. Microsoft, unfortunately, is just talking the talk. And Amazon is completely running amok.

All three companies need to take responsibility for uses of their technology. Now, a nationwide coalition of civil rights organizations have demanded that they not sellface surveillance to the government. 

Last spring, the ACLU exposed how Amazon is aggressively trying to sell its face surveillance product — Rekognition — to government agencies. The company's marketing materials read like a user manual for the type of authoritarian surveillance you can currently see in China.

Amazon encourages governments to use its technology to track "persons of interest" and monitor public spaces, comparing everyone to databases with tens of millions of faces. Amazon even suggested pairing face recognition with police body cameras, a move that would transform devices meant for police accountability into roving mass-surveillance devices.

The dangers couldn't be clearer. In an eye-opening test, Amazon’s Rekognition falsely matched 28 members of Congress against a mugshot database. Tellingly, congressional members of color were disproportionately misidentified, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. And that test wasn’t based on a hypothetical: Law enforcement has already been using Rekognition to match pictures against arrest-photo databases. 

Following these revelations, federal lawmakers spoke up about the risks of face surveillance, and civil rights groups, company shareholders, and hundreds of Amazon employees have called on Amazon to stop selling the technology to governments. But instead of heeding these concerns and taking their product off the table for governments, the company is trying to sell Rekognition to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the FBI.

Amazon's statements and actions provide a stark contrast with Google's approach. While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acknowledged his company's products might be put to "bad uses," he said the solution was to wait for society's eventual "immune response" to take care of the problems. This is a shocking abdication of responsibility, not to mention a convenient blindness to the "response" that Rekognition has already engendered.

Google, on the other hand, has charted a distinctly different course with technologies based on artificial intelligence, with CEO Sundar Pichai urging his industry to realize that "it just can't build it and then fix it."

So where is Microsoft in all this? The company has explicitly recognized the dangers of face surveillance in its statements, but its proposed solutions doesn't add up.

In a blog post, Microsoft President Brad Smith correctly identifies the threats the technology poses to privacy, free speech and other human rights, observing that today's technology makes a surveillance state possible.

But then, after outlining those grave threats to democracy, Smith proposes relying on inadequate safeguards that have failed in the past with technologies far less dangerous than face surveillance. He expresses excessive faith in notifying people of face surveillance systems — but what good is that in a world where face recognition is so widespread that nobody can opt out?

History has taught us that given the opportunity, governments will exploit new surveillance technologies, especially to target communities of color, religious minorities and immigrants. With face surveillance, we are at a crossroads. The choices made now will determine whether the next generation will have to fear being tracked by the government for attending a protest or going to their place of worship — or simply living their lives.

That's why so many people have been sounding the alarm. Microsoft has heard it, but seems to be in denial. Amazon needs to get its fingers out of its ears and start really listening. Google has heard it and is on the right track — the rest of the industry should follow its lead.

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Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

I am going to start selling anti-face recognition products, like fake big noses. You will be able to buy the Barbara Streisand model, the Ringo Starr model or the Joe Demagio model.

SgrA*

I'm all for making business, maybe there's a means to address the circumstance, depending on each person's tolerance for invasion of privacy and what is comfortable. You can use a face shield when you travel in public. A type of Id-fairing; it's like a shell placed over one's facial frame with contours that disrupt camera scanners of accurately identifying facial features. These can be used by people all over town, ruining scanning technology's hold on tracking citizens' every move. They may have them in other cities around the world starting at less than a twenty, where there's monitoring cameras everywhere. This would have to be constitutionally protected too.

Anonymous

Google puts things out and then fixes them afterward all the time. Plus, even before this article was released, it was printed that Google has the framework for a face recognition piece built in for the next release of Android.

Anonymous

face recognition is on all new Iphones already. thanks ACLU for trying to stop these entities from invading our privacy more than they already have!

Anonymous

Did you actually read the article you cited? Pichai was arguing *against* regulation of AI technologies, and *for* the right of companies to sell whatever they want to whomever they want. That sounds like a guarantee that competitive pressures will ultimately force Google to pay as little attention to ethics as Amazon does.

Anonymous

The real danger many people don’t understand is this will be used “covertly” and the punishment is also “covert” - you will not be arrested or confronted but you may be punished “covertly” for a Facebook post that is totally legal. Since it’s covert - like the 1950’s era Cointelpro tactics - there is no “immune response” [referenced above]. For example: you may simply support police body cameras on FB but maybe your local police officers [trolling your FB posts] get angry by your legal First Amendment opinion. Maybe the police-watchdog technology needs to grow faster than the police technology?

Anonymous

Shouldn't each of us get paid when someone uses our images? There is copyright legal precedent. When you hear music in a restaurant or store, that business is legally required to pay copyright fees. Newspaper photographers at one time were legally required to get "photo releases" if they photographed a person and it ended up in the newspaper. It's about money, it can be minimized by making them pay us for using our images.

Anonymous

I am boycotting Amazon. this is all a racist ploy one way or another.

LETTER TO THE EDITOR

This article is way behind what is known about said programs. You say "they might even put them on police body cams". Well they are already using them on traffic lights and police body cams, putting them all into the AWS (amazon web service) cloud which they have a gigantic cluster that then processes all the images and tags the identities on the "amazon citizen profile".

Time to catch up media, wake the F up.

Its also worth noting the Washington post and many other media outlets are owned wholly by the same people with the image recognition database, pilot program, and technology (Amazon).

Very bad..

Anonymous

Maybe facial recognition can be used to keep track of the Banksters running us up to another big crash like 2008 - keep an eye on them and who they talk to nandctextvsne email with ... the SEC would be very interested in this if they could stop watching porn at the office on govt owned computers while judges keep their identities anonymous after court hearings.

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