One year after Amazon, Microsoft and IBM ended facial recognition sales to police, smaller players fill void

Dozens of smaller facial recognition companies have taken over for Amazon, IBM and Microsoft in providing police departments with tools.

Almost one year ago, at the onset of global protests over racism and police brutality, Microsoft, Amazon and IBM joined forces to announce either outright bans on the sale of facial recognition software to police departments or temporary moratoriums.

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The technology has faced backlash for years due to its proven inaccuracy, particularly with identifying the faces of people with darker skin. The ACLU, MIT and even people within Amazon criticized the widespread usage of the technology, and before long stories began to emerge of people erroneously arrested based on mistakes made by the facial recognition software. 

In recent weeks, all three companies reiterated their commitment to ending their foray into providing facial recognition software to police departments, either in public statements or in comments to ZDNet. Amazon told Reuters last week it was extending its moratorium on the sale of the software while Microsoft said in a statement to ZDNet that its "commitment remains the same.

Adam Pratt, director of policy and communications at IBM, said the company "went beyond a temporary moratorium," noting that they sent a letter to Congress outlining policies to advance racial justice reform. IBM's CEO said last year that the company "firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms."

The company even tried to make recommendations to Congress on what legislation governing facial recognition should look like, Pratt added.

"Later last year, we provided input to the US Department of Commerce on tightening US export controls of facial recognition technology to address very serious and legitimate concerns that have been raised about certain uses of facial recognition worldwide," Pratt said. 

But as momentum for federal legislation waned last summer, an ecosystem of smaller players emerged, eager and willing to provide facial recognition software to police departments across the country. 

While about a dozen cities like Portland, Boston, Pittsburgh, and San Francisco have put in place bans or local regulations, hundreds of cities and towns have invested heavily in versions of the technology, even going so far as to defy mayors and local leaders in some cases. 

"We've seen that other companies -- like Clearview AI -- have continued to sell facial recognition to police. This is why we need legislation banning police use of facial recognition," said Caitlin Seeley George, campaign director for nonprofit Fight for the Future.

The group has been on the front lines of the fight against facial recognition software, and George said that the moves made by IBM, Microsoft and Amazon have not stopped other companies from filling the void like Clearview AI, TrueFace, AnyVision, Affectiva, Kairos, Accenture, BioID, Leidos and dozens of others. 

While police departments in the biggest cities across the country continue to use facial recognition software, George said she believes there will be federal bans on the technology within the next five years. 

Other experts expressed concerns that even if there are bans on the use of facial recognition software, police departments may simply ignore them or conceal their usage, as they have in cities like New York and Chicago. 

In April, the Legal Aid Society released documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Law Article 78 settlement which showed that the New York City Police Department was using Clearview AI on unsuspecting New Yorkers.

The documents revealed that about 50 officers at various precincts within the NYPD used the software on cases yet denied using it to news outlets. A member of the NYPD's Identity Theft Squad even kept a log of the "success stories" when they used the technology. There were Clearview AI accounts for people as senior as Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller. 

The Legal Aid Society noted that it is still unclear if courts and lawyers were notified that the technology was used to identify suspects. The documents also showed that the officers who had access to Clearview AI even used it on their personal devices and had gotten login and password information sent directly to their email accounts, a major cybersecurity risk with wide-ranging implications. 

"The NYPD has purposefully kept New Yorkers in the dark on the controversial surveillance technologies that the Department deploys citywide," said Jonathan McCoy, staff attorney with the digital forensics unit at The Legal Aid Society in a statement.

"Short of this litigation and these disclosures, the public would never know the extent to which NYPD employed Clearview -- a controversial tool that other localities have banned outright. We need action from lawmakers in Albany and at City Hall to prohibit the use of facial recognition technologies outright to protect New Yorkers' privacy and other fundamental rights."

Jonathan Reiber, former chief strategy officer for cyber policy and speechwriter in the office of the Secretary of Defense during the Obama administration, said that the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, which was introduced by Senators Ron Wyden and Rand Paul in April, seeks to ban law enforcement from leveraging insights from Clearview AI. 

George added that activists have been on the ground pushing to reignite the momentum around a federal facial recognition bill introduced in 2020 by Senators Ed Markey and Jeff Merkley as well as House Reps Pramila Jayapal and Ayanna Pressley. 

"There is a lot of energy around this bill and as facial recognition has only gotten more and more toxic, and as more examples of police using the technology to wrongfully identify Black men, people are ready to support this legislation," George explained. 

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"States and local efforts are also continuing, with communities in California, Washington, Nebraska, Illinois, and Massachusetts and more still pushing forward local legislation banning the technology. This work is protecting people now." 

Pressley, in a statement last year backing the federal ban on government use of facial recognition software, said "Black and brown people are already over-surveilled and over-policed, and it's critical that we prevent government agencies from using this faulty technology to surveil communities of color even further."  

"This bill would boldly affirm the civil liberties of every person in this country and protect their right to live free of unjust and discriminatory surveillance by government and law enforcement," she added. "As the Representative of two of the first cities on the east coast to outlaw the use of this technology, I'm proud to sponsor this bill and make clear that our government has no business spying on its civilians."