Tech industry continues push to shape federal facial recognition laws

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Dave Limp, Amazon’s hardware SVP, kicked off the company’s devices event on Wednesday in Seattle by talking about privacy. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Tech companies developing facial recognition software want to write the rules that will govern the controversial technology.

A coalition of trade groups representing the tech industry sent a letter Thursday to Congress urging lawmakers not to forbid law enforcement from using facial recognition tech. They made their case just a few hours after Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos told reporters in Seattle that his public policy team is crafting recommended regulations.

Facial recognition software has struck a chord with Americans. It is the most visible artificial intelligence tool seeping into law enforcement at a time when anxiety about the new wave of innovation is running high. Those fears are colliding with a growing awareness of over-policing and police violence against people of color.

The result? Some jurisdictions have outright banned law enforcement agencies from using the technology.

“While we agree that it is important to have effective oversight and accountability of these tools to uphold and protect civil liberties, we disagree that a ban is the best option to move forward,” the letter to Congress says. It was organized by the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation and signed by a number of trade groups. “Bans would keep this important tool out of the hands of law enforcement officers, making it harder for them to do their jobs efficiently, stay safe, and protect our communities.”

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks with reporters at a reception following the company’s Alexa devices and services unveiling at the Amazon Spheres on Wednesday evening in Seattle, with Amazon executives Jay Carney and Dave Limp to his right. (GeekWire Photo / Todd Bishop)

Amazon’s Rekognition software is already in use at several law enforcement agencies, to the consternation of civil rights groups. The ACLU is a vocal critic of the practice, claiming facial recognition amplifies human bias against people of color and women.

The ACLU fought a bill in the Washington state legislature this year that would have established new regulations of facial regulation technology. Microsoft — which has its own facial recognition product — had an active hand in drafting the regulations. The ACLU felt the rules were too permissive and took issue with Microsoft’s involvement in the process.

Despite those concerns, Amazon is joining Microsoft in calling for regulation of facial recognition — on their terms.

“Good regulation in this arena would be very welcome I think by all the players,” Bezos said Wednesday at an Amazon event in Seattle. “It makes a lot of sense for there to be some standards in how this all works, and that kind of stability would be probably healthy for the whole industry. It’s a perfect example of where regulation is needed.”

Evan Greer of the digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future took issue with Bezos’ comments and Amazon’s intention to influence facial recognition regulation. He said the technology “poses a profound threat to the future of human liberty that can’t be mitigated by industry-friendly regulations.”

“We need to draw a line in the sand and ban governments from using this technology before it’s too late,” Greer said in a statement. “We know that members of Congress are currently drafting legislation related to facial recognition, and we hope they know that the public will not accept trojan horse regulations that line Jeff Bezos’ pockets at the expense of all of our basic human rights.”

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