US regulators dash Amazon hopes to stop investor vote on gov't facial recognition tech sales

Amazon wanted to stop shareholders from having a say on the sale of tech to the US government. SEC said no.

Can big tech be green? Amazon working to achieve zero-emissions delivery services Deliveries are going green, but what about that cloud computing data center?

The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has blocked Amazon's attempt to prevent shareholders from voting on the sale of Rekognition facial recognition technologies to the US government.

Earlier this year, shareholders issued a public statement via Open MIC which said "shareholders request that the Board of Directors prohibit sales of facial recognition technology to government agencies unless the Board concludes, after an evaluation using independent evidence, that the technology does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights."

The statement noted that Rekognition is already being trialed in Florida and Oregon by law enforcement.

Rekognition is Amazon's image, face, and object recognition system. Based on deep learning and computer vision algorithms, the software is able to automatically process millions of photos per day and is touted as a solution for a range of applications in social and security contexts.

"You can compare a face on a webcam to a badge photo before allowing an employee to enter a secure zone," Amazon says. "You can perform visual surveillance, inspecting photos for objects or people of interest or concern. You can build "smart" marketing billboards that collect demographic data about viewers."

Now, US regulators have entered the mix. The request of Amazon shareholders for an independent review into the applications of Rekognition and the prohibition of sales until concerns have been allayed were put forward by Amazon with a request to exempt them from an annual meeting, a hope that SEC has now dashed.

See also: UK says prison facial recognition tech, iris scanners deter smugglers

"We are unable to concur in your view that the company may exclude the proposals [...] because we are unable to conclude that the proposals are not otherwise significantly related to the company's business," SEC says.

Amazon attempted to dismiss the requests under SEC rules which can exclude proposals (.PDF) if they "relate to operations which account for less than five percent of the company's total assets at the end of its most recent fiscal year, and for less than five percent of its net earnings and gross sales for its most recent fiscal year" and "are not otherwise significantly related to the company's business."

The first request's subsequent refusal is dated 28 March (.PDF). An appeal, dated April 3 (.PDF), reinforced the decision and was rejected.

"Shareholders -- especially large institutional shareholders -- need to press Amazon on this critical issue by raising their concerns with management and voting their shares," says Michael Connor, Executive Director of Open MIC. "There's a lot at stake."

It is not only shareholders, however, which have raised concerns over the applications of the facial recognition technology.

TechRepublic: How to protect your business from tax fraud

An anonymous, public post reportedly published by an Amazon employee says that a letter was delivered to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to the same effect and was signed by 450 employees.

The letter also requested that Amazon's board remove Palantir from Amazon Web Services, the software used by ICE's tracking and deportation activities.

Over 40 civil rights organizations have also sent a letter to Bezos asking for Rekognition to be "taken off the table for governments." Another open letter describes the concerns that over 70 academics hold relating to Amazon's technology. Research has suggested that the technology is biased towards women and people of color.

In February, in the face of such heat, Amazon proposed a set of guidelines to regulate the use of facial recognition technology at government and law enforcement levels.

CNET: Security cameras with facial recognition tech

The guidelines suggest that facial recognition technology should be used in accordance with the law, including those which protect civil rights; its use should be subject to human review; law enforcement should be transparent about its facial recognition tech usage and practices; notices should be posted for the public when it is in use; and 99 percent confidence thresholds should be maintained if used in legal cases.

ZDNet has reached out to Amazon and will update if we hear back.

Previous and related coverage