Amazon bans police use of its face recognition for a year

Amazon began attracting attention from the American Civil Liberties Union and privacy advocates after it introduced Rekognition in 2016. (AP)
Short Url
Updated 11 June 2020

Amazon bans police use of its face recognition for a year

NEW YORK: Amazon on Wednesday banned police use of its face-recognition technology for a year, making it the latest tech giant to step back from law-enforcement use of systems that have faced criticism for incorrectly identifying people with darker skin.
The Seattle-based company did not say why it took action now. Ongoing protests following the death of George Floyd have focused attention on racial injustice in the US and how police use technology to track people. Floyd died May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed black man’s neck for several minutes even after Floyd stopped moving and pleading for air.
Law enforcement agencies use facial recognition to identify suspects, but critics say it can be misused. A number of US cities have banned its use by police and other government agencies, led by San Francisco last year.
On Tuesday, IBM said it would get out of the facial recognition business, noting concerns about how the technology can be used for mass surveillance and racial profiling.
Civil rights groups and Amazon’s own employees have pushed the company to stop selling its technology, called Rekognition, to government agencies, saying that it could be used to invade people’s privacy and target minorities.
In a blog post Wednesday, Amazon said that it hoped Congress would put in place stronger regulations for facial recognition.
“Amazon’s decision is an important symbolic step, but this doesn’t really change the face recognition landscape in the United States since it’s not a major player,” said Clare Garvie, a researcher at Georgetown University’s Center on Privacy and Technology. Her public records research found only two US two agencies using or testing Rekognition. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon has been the most public about using it. The Orlando police department tested it, but chose not to implement it, she said.
Studies led by MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini found racial and gender disparities in facial recognition software. Those findings spurred Microsoft and IBM to improve their systems, but irked Amazon, which last year publicly attacked her research methods. A group of artificial intelligence scholars, including a winner of computer science’s top prize, last year launched a spirited defense of her work and called on Amazon to stop selling its facial recognition software to police.
A study last year by a US agency affirmed the concerns about the technology’s flaws. The National Institute of Standards and Technology tested leading facial recognition systems — though not Amazon’s, which didn’t submit its algorithms — and found that they often performed unevenly based on a person’s race, gender or age.
Buolamwini on Wednesday called Amazon’s announcement a “welcomed though unexpected announcement.”
“Microsoft also needs to take a stand,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “More importantly our lawmakers need to step up” to rein in harmful deployments of the technologies.
Microsoft has been vocal about the need to regulate facial recognition to prevent human rights abuses but hasn’t said it wouldn’t sell it to law enforcement. The company didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday.
Amazon began attracting attention from the American Civil Liberties Union and privacy advocates after it introduced Rekognition in 2016 and began pitching it to law enforcement. But experts like Garvie say many US agencies rely on facial recognition technology built by companies that are not as well known, such as Tokyo-based NEC, Chicago-based Motorola Solutions or the European companies Idemia, Gemalto and Cognitec.
Amazon isn’t abandoning facial recognition altogether. The company said organizations, such as those that use Rekognition to help find missing children, will still have access to the technology.
This week’s announcements by Amazon and IBM follow a push by Democratic lawmakers to pass a sweeping police reform package in Congress that could include restrictions on the use of facial recognition, especially in police body cameras. Though not commonly used in the US, the possibility of cameras that could monitor crowds and identify people in real time have attracted bipartisan concern.
The tech industry has fought against outright bans of facial recognition, but some companies have called for federal laws that could set guidelines for responsible use of the technology.
“It is becoming clear that the absence of consistent national rules will delay getting this valuable technology into the hands of law enforcement, slowing down investigations and making communities less safe,” said Daniel Castro, vice president of the industry-backed Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, which has advocated for facial recognition providers.
Ángel Díaz, an attorney at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said he welcomed Amazon’s moratorium but it “should have come sooner given numerous studies showing that the technology is racially biased.”
“We agree that Congress needs to act, but local communities should also be empowered to voice their concerns and decide if and how they want this technology deployed at all,” he said.


Indian soldiers unarmed and caught by surprise in China clash, families say

Soldiers await a visit by India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India's Himalayan desert region of Ladakh, India, July 3, 2020, in this still image taken from video. (REUTERS)
Updated 06 July 2020

Indian soldiers unarmed and caught by surprise in China clash, families say

NEW DELHI: Indian soldiers who died in close combat with Chinese troops last month were unarmed and surrounded by a larger force on a steep ridge, Indian government sources, two soldiers deployed in the area and families of the fallen men said.
One of the Indian soldiers had his throat slit with metal nails in the darkness, his father told Reuters, saying he had been told by a fellow soldier who was there.
Others fell to their deaths in the freezing waters of the Galwan river in the western Himalayas, relatives have learned from witnesses.
Twenty Indian soldiers died in the June 15 clash on the de facto border separating the two armies. The soldiers all belonged to the 16th Bihar Regiment deployed in the Galwan region.
No shots were fired, but it was the biggest loss of life in combat between the nuclear-armed neighbors since 1967, when the simmering border dispute flared into deadly battles.
Reuters spoke to relatives of 13 of the men who were killed, and in five cases they produced death certificates listing horrific injuries suffered during the six-hour night-time clash at 14,000 ft (4,267 meters) amid remote, barren mountains.
Reuters contacted the military hospital in India’s Ladakh region where the bodies were brought. The hospital declined to comment on the cause of death and said that the bodies were sent to the families along with the death certificates.
Reuters also spoke to two soldiers of the Bihar Regiment deployed in the area, who were among those who accompanied the bodies of fallen colleagues to their homes in the area. They were not directly involved in the melee.
The soldiers cannot be named because of military rules and all the families asked for anonymity because they said they were not supposed to speak about military matters.
The Indian defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment on the fighting on June 15.
In response to a Reuters query, a China foreign ministry spokesperson repeated previous statements blaming the Indian side for crossing the de facto border and provoking the Chinese.
“When Chinese officers and soldiers went there to negotiate, they were suddenly and violently attacked by the Indian troops,” the spokesperson said. “The rights and wrongs of the incident are very clear. The responsibility absolutely does not lie with the Chinese.”
China has not provided evidence of Indian aggression. China’s defense ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

’ARTERIES RUPTURED’
Three of the dead men had their “arteries ruptured in the neck” and two sustained head injuries caused by “sharp or pointed objects,” the death certificates seen by Reuters said.
There were visible marks on the neck and forehead, all five documents said.
“It was a free-for-all, they fought with whatever they could lay their hands on — rods, sticks, and even with their bare hands,” said a government official in Delhi briefed on the clash.
The Indian government has said that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) acted in a premeditated manner, but it has not provided a full account of the clash that stunned the country and stoked popular anger against China.
China has dismissed an Indian government minister’s claim that China had lost 40 soldiers from the PLA’s western theater command deployed in Galwan.
Its envoy to Delhi suggested in remarks to local media and posted on the embassy website that there had been losses on both sides.
“The Indian army suddenly and violently attacked the Chinese officers and soldiers who went for negotiation, causing fierce physical conflicts and casualties between the two sides,” Sun Weidong said.
Indian government officials have told Reuters that the conflict began when the commanding officer of the Bihar regiment led a small party to Patrol Point 14 to verify whether the Chinese had made good their promise to withdraw from the disputed site and dismantle structures they had built there.
But instead they came under attack by Chinese soldiers using iron rods and wooden clubs with nails studded in them on a narrow ledge barely four meters wide overlooking the Galwan river.

BODIES FOUND IN RIVER
In recent weeks the world’s two most populous countries have mobilized more forces along the 3,488 km Line of Actual Control (LAC), and the renewed hostilities have triggered a diplomatic and commercial spat that threatens to escalate, experts including former Indian military officers say.
The possibility that unarmed Indian soldiers were overrun by a larger force could further fuel resentment against China and raise questions about why Indian soldiers were sent to a tense frontline without being armed.
“How dare China kill our unarmed soldiers. Why were our soldiers sent unarmed to martyrdom?” Rahul Gandhi, leader of the main opposition Congress party wrote in a tweet, demanding the government provide a full account.
A relative of one of the soldiers who accompanied Col. Santosh Babu, the commanding officer, to the site of two tents erected by the Chinese troops told Reuters that members of the Indian patrol were unarmed.
They were confronted by a small group of Chinese soldiers and an argument ensued over the tents and a small observation tower the relative said, on the basis of conversations with two other soldiers who were present.
Reuters was unable to establish all of the details of what happened, but government officials in New Delhi briefed on the incident said that at some point Indian troops took down the observation post and the tents because they were on India’s side of the LAC.
Soon after the Indian side came under attack from a large Chinese force that pelted them with stones and attacked them with sharp-edged weapons, according to the families of three dead Indian soldiers, based on conversations they had with survivors.
Some soldiers retreated to safety on the ridgeline in the darkness, but when they could not find the commanding officer, they re-emerged and came under fresh attack, four family members said.
Babu was among those killed in the fighting, the Indian government said. One of the soldiers deployed in the area that Reuters spoke to said the Indian patrol was outnumbered by the PLA.
“The Chinese side overwhelmed our people by sheer numbers,” said the soldier, who overheard radio messages seeking reinforcements being sent to regional headquarters in Ladakh.
Three of the Indian families said they had been told by soldiers who were commissioned to bring the bodies back to them that some combatants pushed each other into the fast-flowing Galwan river.
The government official in Delhi also said bodies of some soldiers were fished out of the river the next morning. Some had succumbed to hypothermia, the official added.