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Amazon, IBM, Microsoft stop facial recognition technology criticized for potential racial bias

In 2018, a coalition of civil rights organizations wrote a letter demanding that Amazon stop providing facial recognition technology to the Government. Civil rights groups have long called out the targeting of communities of color with the use of facial recognition technology due to the technology's bias in misidentifying people of color. In June 2020 Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM officially halted police use of their facial recognition software, as reported by the Verge.

There existed mounting public pressure in 2018 to discontinue the supply of facial recognition software to police departments, but many corporations continued with business as usual ignoring the public pushback. Civil rights groups and experts criticized the facial recognition software for being biased in misidentifying people of color.  A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the Department of Commerce supported this claim of racial bias, as summarized in this ABC News report: 

In the past, Amazon insisted in providing these technologies so that government officials could track and monitor “people of interest.” However, the protests following the police killing of George Floyd has prompted Amazon and other technology companies to reconsider the development of racially biased facial recognition technology. Amazon decided on June 10, 2020 to issue a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition software called Rekognition. IBM went further and completely abandoned its facial recognition technology. Microsoft promised to sell to police departments in the U.S. until there is federal law regulating it

It is important to note that these three companies are not the top suppliers of these technology to law enforcement. According to CNN, Clearview AI, Japan's NEC and Ayonix, Germany's Cognitec, and Australia's iOmniscient are all major vendors of the technology that are still selling facial recognition software to police departments in the U.S. So critics see the decisions of Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft as potentially good PR for them, amidst the racial justice reckoning in the U.S., but only a small change that will not alter the larger market for facial recognition technology. While the changes in policy has been applauded, the three companies contributed to the existing problems in the past. In 2019, Microsoft supported legislation in California that would allow police departments and private companies to purchase and use these systems. Microsoft also provided a facial recognition dataset of more than 10 million faces, many of whom did not consent to the use of their image, according to the Verge.

Civil rights groups have called the actions made by Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft a start. Kate Crockford, of ACLU Massachusetts, notes that while it is concerning companies like Microsoft offered this software to begin with, their decision to stop supplying the technology is a "positive step."  However, it remains to be seen whether Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft will work to ensure that these technologies cannot be used in biased manner against people of color. 

--written by Bisola Oni

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