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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. agency affirmed the concerns about the technology’s flaws. The National Institute of Standards and Technology tested leading facial recognition systems -- though not from Amazon, 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 through the 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 U.S. 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 children who are missing or sexually exploited, 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 U.S., the possibility of cameras that could monitor crowds and identify people in real-time has 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 said 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.

Federal Reserve officials predicted they would keep interest rates close to zero until at least the end of 2022, as the US central bank indicated it would take years to bring joblessness back down to the levels before the coronavirus pandemic. The dovish tone from the Fed, which is expecting the US economy to contract by 6.5 percent this year, with unemployment falling to 9.3 per cent, reinforced expectations that the central bank was settling in for an extended fight against the economic shock triggered by the virus. In a policy statement that was mostly unchanged compared with April, the Federal Open Market Committee said it was “committed to using its full range of tools to support the US economy in this challenging time” and would keep interest rates close to zero until it was “confident that the economy has weathered recent events”. During the ensuing press conference, Jay Powell, the Fed chair, added: “We’re not thinking about raising rates. We’re not even thinking about raising rates.” The Fed’s economic projections were it's first since last December before the coronavirus spread. After this year’s blow to output and employment, the median forecast of Fed officials was for a rebound in 2021 — with the growth of 5 per cent and joblessness dropping to 6.5 per cent. All but two Fed officials predicted its main interest rate would remain close to zero through 2022. The median forecast for core personal consumption expenditures inflation, the Fed’s preferred measure, was 1 per cent this year, 1.5 per cent in 2021 and 1.7 per cent in 2022 — below the central bank’s 2 per cent target. Mark Cabana, an interest rate strategist at Bank of America, said the economic projections suggested: “a Fed that is going to be quite dovish”. “This Fed is very much on hold for the foreseeable future and wants to do what it can to provide additional stimulus and help the economy,” he said.
Auto racing giant NASCAR said Wednesday that it is banning the display of the Confederate flag at all of its events and properties.
The announcement is sure to be controversial with a number of NASCAR fans, some of whom continue to display Confederate flags and symbols at racing events even five years after the organization asked fans not to do so.
Also Wednesday, NASCAR removed its rule mandating that racing team members stand for the national anthem.
NASCAR’s new outright ban on the Confederate flag comes more than two weeks after a black man, George Floyd, died when a white Minneapolis police officer named Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, even after Floyd repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe.”
The incident ignited protests nationwide. It also triggered demands for the removal from public places of symbols of the Confederacy, the group of Southern states that started the Civil War in 1861 by seceding from the United States in a doomed, bloody effort to save the institution of enslaving black people.
Walmart Inc will stop keeping personal care products designed for people of color in locked display cases, the retailer said after the practice drew flak online with many saying it suggested customers for these products cannot be trusted.
“We have made the decision to discontinue placing multicultural hair care and beauty products in locked cases,” the company said in an email statement on Wednesday.
Walmart said the practice was in place in about a dozen of its 4,700 stores in the United States and the cases were in place to deter shoplifters from products such as electronics, automotive, cosmetics and other personal care products.
The criticism of the retailer comes at a time when the United States has been rocked by protests against racial discrimination, following the killing of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, on May 25.
The change in Walmart's policy was prompted by a June 8 CBS News report that a Walmart customer had complained of the practice being discriminatory against people of color while visiting a store in the city of Denver.
“The multi-cultural hair care is all locked behind the glass. That’s so ridiculous,” Lauren Epps, a black woman was quoted as saying in the report.
Disney on Wednesday unveiled a phased reopening plan for its California parks, hotels, and other attractions in July after closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The company announced it would begin reopening attractions with the Downtown Disney District opening to guests on July 9, followed by the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure parks on July 17 and lastly the Grand Californian hotel and spa and the Paradise Pier Hotel on July 23.