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)
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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.


Ethiopia says Tigray capital encircled after surrender ultimatum

Updated 48 min 29 sec ago

Ethiopia says Tigray capital encircled after surrender ultimatum

  • PM Abiy’s forces pushing to take Mekelle city
  • Government says Tigrayan forces destroy Axum airport

ADDIS ABABA/NAIROBI: Ethiopian federal forces were encircling the Tigray region’s capital from around 50 km (30 miles) on Monday, the government said, after giving the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) a 72-hour surrender ultimatum.
“The beginning of the end is within reach,” government spokesman Redwan Hussein said of the nearly three-week-old offensive that has destabilized Ethiopia and spilled into some Horn of Africa neighbors.
Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has told the TPLF, which had been ruling the mountainous northern zone of 5 million people, to lay down arms by Wednesday or face a final assault on Mekelle, a highland city of half a million people.
TPLF leader Debretsion Gebremichael denied that Mekelle was surrounded and told Reuters the ultimatum threat was a cover for government forces to regroup after what he described as defeats on three fronts.
Reuters could not verify the latest statements.
Claims by all sides are hard to verify because phone and Internet communication has been down.
Hundreds, possibly thousands, have been killed in fighting and air strikes that erupted on Nov. 4, sending about 40,000 refugees into neighboring Sudan, after the government accused the TPLF of ambushing a federal military base.
The conflict has spread beyond Tigray, with the TPLF firing rockets into both the neighboring Amhara region and across the border to Eritrea, which Tigrayans accuse of supporting government forces, something Asmara denies.
Redwan told a news conference that the government now controlled most of Tigray and people in captured towns were handing over weapons given them by the TPLF.
Federal forces were ringing Mekelle from about 50 km, he added in a text to Reuters.
Tigrayan forces fired rockets on Monday at Bahir Dar, the capital of Amhara region whose authorities are supporting the federal offensive, Redwan and residents said. He said the rockets caused no damage.
“So far, I didn’t hear of any casualties,” said a hotel receptionist of the pre-dawn attack. “I guess now we are accustomed to it and there wasn’t much panic.”

ANCIENT AXUM
Addis Ababa police have arrested some 796 people suspected of plotting “terrorist attacks” in the capital for the TPLF, the state-affiliated Fana broadcaster reported.
There was no immediate comment from Ethiopia’s government or the TPLF.
The government said TPLF troops had destroyed the airport at the ancient town of Axum, a popular tourist draw and UNESCO World Heritage site 215 km (133 miles) northwest of Mekelle.
The TPLF’s Debretsion denied this, saying obstacles had been put up to block advances by the Ethiopian military.
Axum’s history and ruins, including fourth-century obelisks erected when the Axumite Empire was at its height, gives Ethiopia its claim to be one of the world’s oldest centers of Christianity.
Legend says it was home to the Queen of Sheba and Ethiopians believe a church there houses the Ark of the Covenant.
The TPLF accuses Abiy of invading their region to dominate them. “We are people of principle and are ready to die in defense of our right to administer our region,” TPLF leader Debretsion added in a text message to Reuters.
Debretsion was a signals and intelligence officer for the TPLF in their war against Ethiopia’s Marxist dictatorship in the 1980s and later earned a degree in electronic engineering from Addis Ababa University.
He rose to the rank of deputy prime minister in the Ethiopian government when it was dominated by the TPLF.
The TPLF accuses Abiy, a former military comrade and coalition partner, of marginalizing their ethnic group since becoming prime minister two years ago. He has removed Tigrayan officials from influential roles in government and the military and detained some on rights abuse and corruption charges.
Abiy, whose parents are from the larger Oromo and Amhara groups, denies any ethnic undertones, saying he is legitimately pursuing criminals and preserving national unity.
The African Union (AU) has named three envoys for potential talks over Tigray. Redwan said Abiy would meet them and was open to all options except negotiating with the TPLF.
Attorney General Gedion Timothewos Hessebon said TPLF actions, including attacks on the military’s Northern Command, Amhara and Eritrea, may constitute treason and terrorism. Authorities have frozen the assets of 38 companies linked to them, he added.