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Amazon is writing facial recognition legislation to shape its tech future

Amazon.com Inc. is taking aggressive steps to craft federal regulations around facial recognition technology as the online giant seeks to capitalize on the lucrative surveillance industry.

Amazon Chairman, CEO and President Jeff Bezos revealed Sept. 25 that the company's public policy team was working on facial recognition legislation. Analysts say the Seattle-based company is likely huddling behind the scenes with an army of lobbyists and Congressional staffers to write rules that will ultimately benefit its "Rekognition" facial analysis software, first introduced in 2016. Amazon's draft bill could also be crafted to allay concerns among civil rights groups who say Rekognition could violate privacy laws, facilitate racial bias and lead to a society where citizens are watched 24/7.

"Crafting your own legislation a) allows you to ensure that it's done, and b) ensures that elements that you would like to be in it are definitely in it, and perhaps elements that you would not like to be in it are not in it," David Silverman, senior director for Fitch Ratings' corporates group, said in an interview.

Amazon has plenty at stake. Rekognition is a high-profile offering of the company's cloud computing unit Amazon Web Services Inc. It gives Amazon a direct connection to the global surveillance market, which is set to grow to $15.4 billion by 2024, up from $3.3 billion as of 2016, according to Variant Market Research.

Amazon declined to comment for this story. But Michael Punke, AWS global public policy vice president, outlined some of Amazon's views on facial recognition in a blog post back in February. Punke said law enforcement should use the technology's recommended "99% confidence threshold" in investigations and in tandem with other elements of police work. He also said there should be written, visible notices to the public when video surveillance and facial recognition technology are used in public or commercial settings.

It is highly unlikely that Congress would adopt Amazon's model bill in its entirety. But potential legislation could include parts of the company's "wishlist," Daniel Auble, a senior researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics, said in an interview. Having a bill already drafted saves some busy work for congressional staff who are often pressed for time, he said.

"When they have a meeting on the Hill, they have a very concrete starting point for the conversation," he said.

Alex Engler, a Brookings Institution fellow who studies the implications of artificial intelligence on society and governance, said Amazon has some time to finesse its message and influence lawmakers on the Hill because it is unlikely that any major technology legislation will be passed this year.

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Making its case

Amazon is marketing the Rekognition software to law enforcement agencies and private sector companies at a time when the online giant and other major tech companies including Apple Inc., Facebook Inc. and Alphabet Inc.'s Google LLC are being scrutinized by lawmakers for a host of issues, including data privacy, antitrust and their impact on the economy.

Amazon wants to craft the legislation as several states, municipalities and the U.S. Congress all have pending bills before them related to facial recognition. One of those bills is the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act of 2019, which would prohibit certain entities from using facial recognition technology to identify or track an end user without consent.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., has been referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation but has not moved ahead. Blunt's office did not respond to inquiries for this story.

Amazon's push to shape legislation is just the most recent example of how it is flexing its political muscles. The e-commerce giant has spent $8.1 million on lobbying expenditures thus far in 2019, according to CPR's OpenSecrets.org website.

Brookings' Engler said that some of Amazon's biggest competitors had backed away from selling the technology, exacerbating Amazon's exposure to any legislative changes on facial technology.

"Amazon has the most to lose on what could probably be a pretty big market," he said.

Google said in late 2018 that it would not offer facial recognition tools for sale "before working through important technology and policy questions."

Microsoft Corp. President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith told Reuters Sept. 13 that the company would not sell the technology for surveillance purposes. The company develops some facial recognition services, including a resource for algorithms to detect, recognize and analyze human faces through Microsoft Azure, the company's cloud computing service.

Subject of controversy

Amazon says Rekognition can be used to prevent human trafficking, inhibit child exploitation and reunite missing children with their families. It can also identify celebrities, search through mountains of data and help remove explicit content from websites.

Others are more critical of the technology.

Rekognition came under fire in 2018 when the American Civil Liberties Union did a study, using Amazon's Rekognition tool, in which it ran photos of members of Congress against a database of 25,000 arrest mugshots. According to the ACLU, the technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress. The false matches were disproportionately people of color.

In June 2018, the ACLU and a coalition of civil rights organizations called on Amazon to stop marketing the technology to governments.

Amazon shareholders have also pushed back against technology. In early 2019, a group of company shareholders proposed resolutions that would have prevented Amazon from selling its Rekognition facial recognition service to governments unless its board determined that sales did not harm civil rights. The second proposal would have required the company to carry out a study to find out the extent to which Rekognition violated liberties and privacy.

Shareholders ultimately turned down the two proposals at the annual general meeting in May.

Gaining traction

Amazon claims that Rekognition is a simple-to-use technology that allows users to locate where faces exist in an image or video, and identify the attributes and emotions associated with those faces. The images analyzed are outlined around the face with a "bounding box" and assigned object notation numbers that indicate the location of each major element of the face such as the nose, eyes and mouth.

The technology compares this data with each of the images it searches, then assigns each face a "similarity score" that measures how likely the two faces are the same person. Amazon noted on its website that even a similarity score of 99% does not guarantee a positive match because it uses "a probabilistic system."

Customers are using Rekognition even though the technology cannot commit to 100% accuracy.

According to Amazon's website, Rekognition has amassed more than 40 customers in both the public and private sectors. These include a sheriff's office in Oregon that has used the technology to identify and catch criminals and Nigeria-based Aella Credit, a bank that uses Rekognition to detect and compare faces of customers. C-Span, the public service TV network, also uses the technology to tag who is speaking on camera.

Amazon did not provide exact figures but confirmed that Rekognition comprised "significantly less" than 5% of AWS' revenue, income and assets in 2018, according to a company filing. AWS is a major government contractor and profit driver for Amazon, generating $25.66 billion in revenue in 2018, up from $17.46 billion in 2017.

Rekognition is far from the only facial recognition technology in the market. It has competitors large and small, including Trueface, a California-based company with clients such as the U.S. Air Force and Texas-based FC Construction Services. Variant Market Research did not respond to inquiries about the market share that Amazon and its competitors hold in the surveillance industry.

Shaun Moore, CEO of Trueface, said in an interview that surveillance technology is just two or three years from being mass deployed.

"We're in a world right now where people are scared to go to a concert in Vegas," Moore said. "This hyper-careful world we live in wants a solution, and technology can help."