Amazon shareholders demand company stop selling facial recognition technology to governments

Jeremy B White
The letter urged Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling surveillance technology to governments until 'appropriate guidelines and policies in place to safeguard the rights of our customers, shareholders, other stakeholders and citizen': REUTERS/Rex Curry

A group of Amazon shareholders is asking CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling and marketing pattern-recognition technology to governments after civil liberties groups warned of the potential for abuse.

Earlier this year, a group of advocacy organisations led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report detailing how Amazon was marketing its Rekognition tool to American law enforcement agencies. In addition to touting the technology as helping to find suspects by allowing law enforcement to sift through images of faces, Amazon has said it could be used to preemptively identify “persons of interest” and prevent crimes.

A letter signed by 19 shareholders - and provided to The Independent by the ACLU - urges Mr Bezos to halt the tool’s expansion until those concerns can be addressed.

Furnishing police and sheriff’s departments with the tool would bolster “government surveillance infrastructure technology” and could drive down Amazon’s value, the letter warned. It also echoed concerns about the potential for misuse.

“While Rekognition may be intended to enhance some law enforcement activities, we are deeply concerned it may ultimately violate civil and human rights”, the letter said. “We are concerned the technology would be used to unfairly and disproportionately target and surveil people of colour, immigrants, and civil society organisations”.

Outside of the United States, authoritarian regimes in other countries could use the tool to intimidate democracy advocates, the letter warned.

“Experience has shown repressive governments tend toward incarceration and torture of identified people who are opposing repressive practices, and the surveillance technologies will tend to harden this circle of repression”, the document said.

A representative of Amazon declined to comment on the record.

Shareholders of major technology companies have increasingly been broadcasting their concerns about the financial and reputational damage of privacy violations.

In a tense Facebook shareholder meeting last month, one investor accused the company of a “human rights violation” for failing to steward a reservoir of consumer data that was revealed to have ended up in the hands of consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.