Amazon addresses staff worries about facial recognition and law enforcement

9 Nov 2018

Image: © Diogo/

Amazon has been criticised in recent times for licensing its facial recognition software system to government and law enforcement agencies in the US.

Employees at Amazon have been concerned for some time about the company’s licensing of its Rekognition system to US law enforcement agencies.

Recently, a meeting with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was held to settle on a deal involving the tech. The Rekognition system is a powerful software tool and Amazon staff have raised concerns about the use of such a tool by ICE to track people and potentially deport them back to dangerous situations in other countries.

An all-hands staff meeting

BuzzFeed News reported yesterday that among other execs, Amazon Web Services (AWS) CEO Andrew Jassy met with employees on 8 November to discuss the company’s dealings with US authorities. AWS is responsible for powering Rekognition, which is being used in the states of Florida and Oregon by police departments.

He said: “We feel really great and really strongly about the value that Amazon Rekognition is providing our customers of all sizes and all types of industries in law enforcement and out of law enforcement.”

Jassy added that he thought it was the responsibility of the US government to specify the regulations needed around facial recognition technology. The company-wide meeting was touted as a more general discussion, but the Rekognition issues were at the top of the agenda for many employees, as Amazon faced criticism from civil rights groups, shareholders and staff members themselves.

One anonymous employee told BuzzFeed News that the all-hands meeting was not an appropriate way for the company to address the concerns in an adequate manner. “There is no way to hold leadership responsible in comparison to, say, a letter or email from HR to all employees where a statement is written and more concrete.”

ACLU criticises Amazon

Earlier this summer, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) tested Amazon’s Rekognition system by scanning the faces of all 535 members of Congress against 25,000 mugshots from a public database. While none of the politicians were in the mugshot data pool, the system still made 28 false matches.

This caused the ACLU to raise concerns about the accuracy of the software. Manager for deep learning and AI at the company, Matt Wood, said that the so-called ‘confidence threshold’ for the test was set far too low, disputing the findings.

The pushback from Amazon staff is part of a wider movement from many employees of the largest tech firms in the world. Google, for example, recently made some changes to policies after mass walkouts across its global offices.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects