Surprise delivery: Amazon HQ receives 150k signatures urging company to stop selling facial recognition software to cops

Community leaders ask Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to police at the company’s Seattle headquarters. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon received an unexpected delivery Monday afternoon when community leaders dropped off four big boxes of signatures urging the company to stop selling image recognition technology to law enforcement agencies.

Activists representing faith groups, immigrants, and labor held a press conference at Amazon’s iconic Spheres in Seattle. The event is part of an ongoing effort to get Amazon to stop providing police with its Rekognition software. On Friday,  nearly 20 groups of Amazon shareholders sent a letter asking the company to stop the practice.

Rev. Paul Benz of the Faith Action Network asks an Amazon employee where to drop off the signatures. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon’s Rekognition identifies patterns in large databases of images and video, allowing the technology to pick out faces, objects, and activities. Amazon lists the Washington County Sheriff Office in Oregon as one of its customers on the Rekognition website.

For weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union has been urging Amazon not to sell Rekognition to police, claiming, “facial recognition technology is biased, misidentifying African Americans and relying on databases built on a history of discrimination in our criminal justice system.” The ACLU organized the event at Amazon’s headquarters Monday.

“Our primary concern today is to send a clear message to Amazon that they have a responsibility to ensure that the technology they develop cannot be used to power and boost a surveillance society that is tainted by Islamaphobia, xenophobia, and racism,” said Rich Stoltz, executive director of the Washington immigrant rights group OneAmerica, during the event.

Activists delivered hard copies of the 150,000 signatures inside the Amazon Spheres. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Stan Shikuma, of the Japanese American Citizens League, said surveillance programs have a long history of disproportionately targeting groups based on ethnicity. His remarks focused on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

“The precursor to that was a large surveillance system starting in the 1930s … the potential for bias to creep into even an accurate surveillance program is immense and it’s a danger,” he said.

Amazon is not commenting on the petition but one of the company’s AI executives, Matt Wood, did share some thoughts about the controversy a few weeks ago.

“There has been no reported law enforcement abuse of Amazon Rekognition,” he said in a blog post. Wood later added, “There have always been and will always be risks with new technology capabilities. Each organization choosing to employ technology must act responsibly or risk legal penalties and public condemnation.”

Beyond law enforcement, other Rekognition customers use the software to classify product inventories, identify specific people in large image libraries, and for other functions.

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