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Tech Giants Under Fire For Facial Recognition

Face

From concerns about mass surveillance to the inhumane separation of thousands of children from their parents at the borders, the relationship of giant tech companies with the U.S. government is growing increasingly controversial.

Just ask Amazon, or Microsoft.

Nearly two dozen Amazon shareholder groups are pressuring CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling a facial recognition technology you’ve probably never heard of to law enforcement agencies. They’re concerned that the technology—call Rekognition—will be yet another threat to our privacy and help the government cement its mass surveillance capabilities.

Earlier this year, a group of advocacy organizations led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) published a report detailing how Amazon was marketing its Rekognition tool to US law enforcement agencies. Now, shareholders appear to be siding with advocates of privacy and civil rights.

On Friday, those shareholders, which include the Social Equity Group and Northwest Coalition for Responsible Investment, wrote to Bezos about their concerns, pointing out to the recent scrutiny of Facebook over privacy and data as a cautionary tale.

They called on Bezos to stop selling the service.

"We are concerned the technology would be used to unfairly and disproportionately target and surveil people of color, immigrants, and civil society organizations," the shareholders write. "We are concerned sales may be expanded to foreign governments, including authoritarian regimes."

It was never a secret; so the shareholders’ sudden concern is a sign of the changing times. On its website, Amazon has promoted how police have used its face recognition software to identify persons of interest to law enforcement agencies.

The company said that the tool could be used for law enforcement tasks ranging from fighting human trafficking to finding lost children, and that just like computers, it can be a force for good in responsible hands. Related: Tax Reform Could Push U.S. Profits Abroad

However, privacy advocates say it could lead to automatically identifying and tracking anyone, not just criminals, and it can be used for violation of privacy. For instance , British broadcaster Sky News used the tool to help viewers identify celebrities at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Customers, which include law enforcement agencies from several states, can upload face databases to automatically identify individual in up to 100 people in a crowd.

Facial recognition software works by matching real time images to a previous photograph of a person. Each face has approximately 80 unique nodal points across the eyes, nose, cheeky and mouth which distinguish one person from another. 

It's not clear how many law enforcement agencies have purchased the tool since its launch in late 2016 or since its update last fall, when Amazon added capabilities that allow it to identify people and follow their movements almost instantaneously.

Obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, ACLU found out that Rekognition is currently used by police in Florida’s Orlando and Oregon’s Washington County, often using nondisclosure agreements to avoid public disclosure.

In late May, media reported that Washington County Sheriff office pays between $6 and $12 a month for service, which allows the department to scan some 300,000 mug shot photos against real-time footage.

For Microsoft, there is also unease over relationships with controversial government programs—in this case, its role in the facilitation of Trump’s move to separate thousands of children from South/Central America from their parents at border crossings.

Related: How Chinese Investors Could Send The Tech Boom Into Overdrive

The software giant’s employees are now protesting Microsoft’s support of the immigration-enforcement agency (ICE).  

Again, Microsoft’s work with ICE was no secret. It’s been working on a cloud-computing platform that will help ICE “utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification”. A message of pride in the program published by Microsoft in January was then deleting, reportedly by a panicking employee, and later toned down. No one noticed it until Trump started taking children from their parents by the thousands.

Microsoft has said it is “dismayed” by Trump’s actions, stressing that “Microsoft is not working with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border,” said CEO Satya Nadella in an email to employees obtained by CNN, calling the policy “cruel” and “abusive”.

In a statement two days before the email, Microsoft called on the administration to change its policy.

Starting with Facebook, the public—and even shareholders who have benefited from the tech stock windfall lately—are becoming increasingly uneasy as it becomes clearer that privacy is the quid-pro-quo, and lines in the sand must be drawn.

By Michael Kern for Safehaven.com

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