Amazon said on Wednesday that it’s banning use of its facial recognition software by police for one year, as pressure on tech companies builds to respond to the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.
“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” Amazon said in a statement. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”
While the House Committee on Oversight and Reform has held a number of hearings on the use of facial recognition technology, it has yet to introduce a bill regulating the technology. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, D-Ca., who serves on the committee told CNBC in a phone interview he is hopeful Congress will pass a bill this year.
“It’s a good first step, but it’s still not enough,” said Rep. Gomez of Amazon’s announcement.
“They’re saying, ‘we’ve been asking Congress to put guardrails on the use of this technology,’ – but every time we tried to get more and more data they stalled – and we had to have hearings to make movement on the issue.”
Gomez says the committee has been seeking more information about the technology, and to whom Amazon sells it.
Amazon’s announcement comes two days after IBM said it was exiting the facial recognition business, with CEO Arvind Krishna calling on Congress to enact reforms to advance racial justice and combat systemic racism. Also on Monday, Democratic lawmakers unveiled a sweeping police reform bill, and on Wednesday the House Judiciary Committee held hearings on preventing police brutality.
Floyd, an unarmed black man, was killed on May 25, with video showing that the police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes. In subsequent days, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has spoken up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and has posted e-mail exchanges with customers who are unhappy with his stance.
Rekognition has been a controversial topic for Amazon even before the latest spate of nationwide protests against police violence. The technology has been used by law enforcement agencies and was reportedly pitched to Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the U.S. Amazon Web Services has said in the past that the technology is used by organizations that work with law enforcement to advocate for victims of crime.
The Washington County Sheriff Office in Oregon is the only police department that AWS names on its website as a Rekognition customer. Amazon declined to comment on the total number of police departments that use Rekognition.
AWS launched Rekognition in 2016, describing it in a short blog post at the time as a “service that makes it easy to add image analysis to your applications” and to “detect objects, scenes, and faces in images.” Last year, Amazon said that Rekognition was capable of detecting a person’s fear by identifying expressions. It could also determine whether someone was happy or sad.
Research has indicated that facial recognition software may hold racial and gender bias. Last year Joy Buolamwini, founder of Algorithmic Justice League, testified about research into the subject for Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her findings helped provide the basis of a shareholder vote that Amazon held last year, with 2.4% of shareholders voting in favor of banning the sale of the technology to government agencies.
More than 1,000 police departments across the U.S. have partnerships with Ring, the smart doorbell security company owned by Amazon, according to a tracker on its website. The partnerships allow police to request footage from Ring security cameras, which has raised privacy concerns.
— CNBC’s Annie Palmer contributed to this report