Shareholders reject efforts to rein in Amazon’s sale of facial recognition tech to law enforcement

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La Resistencia activists Peter Strand, Miranda Klinck and Katy Sanlis demand ICE stop using facial recognition software. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Amazon will continue to sell its facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies without oversight after two shareholder resolutions were voted down Wednesday at the company’s annual investor meeting.

The resolutions would have prevented Amazon from selling the software to government agencies without board approval and directed the board to commission an independent study of the technology’s potential threats to civil liberties.

“A long history of other surveillance technologies shows that face surveillance is certain to be disproportionately aimed at immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, activists, and other vulnerable communities,” said the ACLU’s Shankar Narayan during the meeting.

The event drew more protestors than in years past, including activists from La Resistencia, a group working to end the detention and deportation of immigrants. They showed up Wednesday to demand Amazon refrain from selling its Rekognition software to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

“They’re contributing to the expansion of detention,” said Maru Mora Villalpando, an activist with La Resistencia. “We have reached the maximum number, ever, of people detained throughout the nation … we believe that Amazon is harming our communities if they continue with their push of selling this software to ICE.”

Amazon is opaque about its relationship with ICE. Last October, the Project on Government Oversight released emails between Amazon and ICE officials obtained through a public records request that revealed a meeting between the agency and company over the summer. An unnamed Amazon employee said the company was “ready and willing to support the [Homeland Security Investigations] mission,” in the emails.

When the emails were released, an ICE spokesperson told the Washington Post that “industry outreach and building relationships with potential contractors is fairly standard within government acquisition.” ICE did not have a contract with Amazon at the time, according to public procurement data.

“ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations has used facial recognition in the past to assist during the course of criminal investigations related to fraudulent activities, identity theft and child exploitation crimes, and the component will continue to explore cutting-edge technology to compliment criminal investigations going forward,” ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke told GeekWire in December.

Amazon did not immediately respond to our request to comment for this story.

Law enforcement use of facial recognition technology has become a lightning rod, drawing criticism from activists and politicians. Just today, the U.S. House Oversight Committee held a hearing on government use of the technology.

“Right now companies, governments, agencies can essentially steal or use your biometric data from you without your consent and this is outrageous,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez during the hearing. “Because this is America and we have a right to privacy.”

Facial recognition is also a hot button issue in the other Washington, where Amazon is based. Earlier this year, lawmakers in Washington state tried to pass a data privacy bill that would have imposed new regulations on companies developing facial recognition software and governments using it. The bill was not ultimately passed.

Facial recognition was just one of the issues that Amazon shareholders voted on Wednesday. There were 11 total resolutions, more than any other public company in 2019. They covered a range of issues, including a climate change push backed by more than 7,600 employees, pay equity, and a call for an independent board chair. All 11 resolutions were voted down.

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