Amazon puts one-year ban on use of facial recognition tech by police

11 Jun 2020

Image: © Bumble Dee/

For the next year, Amazon will not allow police forces to use its facial recognition technology as it calls for stronger regulation.

Amazon’s facial recognition software – called Rekognition – will be ruled off limits to police forces for one year, as issues of systemic racism and police brutality have been placed under the spotlight by recent protests.

In a brief statement, Amazon Web Services said that the one-year moratorium only applies to police forces, but groups such as the International Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Marinus Analytics can still use it.

“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, [the US] Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” it said. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

Concerns have been raised about facial recognition technology in terms of surveillance, privacy, consent, accuracy and automation bias.

Last year, Amazon developers announced that an updated version of Rekognition could detect fear in a person’s face, which caused some groups to worry about how this would be used by law enforcement in the years to come.

At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) claimed that Rekognition had falsely identified 26 Californian lawmakers as being matches to criminal mugshots on its public database of 25,000 photos.

‘Automates and exacerbates police abuse’

Digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future also claimed that Rekognition was helping to build “the dystopian surveillance state of our nightmares”, with its deputy director, Evan Green, stating that he believed Amazon’s technology would get someone killed.

“Facial recognition already automates and exacerbates police abuse, profiling and discrimination,” he said last year in response to Rekognition’s fear update.

“Now Amazon is setting us on a path where armed government agents could make split-second judgements based on a flawed algorithm’s cold testimony.”

In a series of tweets following the announcement of the one-year ban, the ACLU welcomed the decision but called on Amazon to bring in a total ban on the use of Rekognition “until the dangers can be fully adressed”. It also called on Microsoft to ban the use of its own facial recognition software.

Amazon staff have previously flagged concerns about Rekognition, but Amazon Web Services’ CEO Andrew Jassy said in a meeting with employees about these issues in 2018 that the company feels “really great and really strongly” about its relationship with customers in law enforcement and out of law enforcement.

Amazon’s decision comes after IBM announced plans this week to scrap its general purpose facial recognition and analysis software products. In an open letter, IBM CEO Arvind Krishna said the company opposes the use of technology for mass surveillance or racial profiling and called for a “national dialogue” on whether facial recognition software should be used by the police.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic