AI Researchers Asked Amazon To Stop Selling Rekognition To Law Enforcement

AI researchers asked amazon to stop selling Rekognition to the policeImage from Steve Jurvetson / Flickr

The rise of the facial recognition technology has been shrouded with controversy as issues of privacy and abuse become the central concern in handling the said innovation. Companies producing the technology, like Amazon, have repeatedly been slammed for their move to sell their version of the technology, the Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies amid calls to stand down following the uncovered flaws in the software’s system.

Now, the world’s leading artificial intelligence experts, tech researchers, and academics joined together to call out Amazon for selling their “flawed” system to law enforcement agencies, racing concerns of security and police abuse aided by Rekognition.

The experts – together those from Amazon’s competitors like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook – published through an open letter to Amazon, the different issues they raised against Amazon and the Rekognition. They are also asking the company to stop selling the software to the police.

“We call on Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to law enforcement,” the open letter highlights.

The letter was premised on the recent study conducted by Inioluwa Deborah Raji and Joy Buolamwini, published at the AAAI/ACM conference on Artificial Intelligence, Ethics, and Society, where the researchers found out that the version of Amazon’s Rekognition tool which was available on August 2018, has much higher error rates while classifying the gender of darker skinned women than lighter skinned men (31% vs. 0%).

In January, Amazon came into heavy scrutiny after the researchers from MIT and the University of Toronto have found out that their facial analysis software mistakes dark-skinned women to men. Results have shown that Amazon’s facial analysis have mistaken 31% of black women as men compared to 7% of white women being mistaken to men. The results also revealed that the analysis for men has essentially no identification.

Citing a statement from Amazon’s vice president Michael Punke discrediting the study conducted by Raji and Buolamwini, the letter notes several important facts “reinforcing the importance of the study and discussing the manner in which Wood and Punke’s blog posts misrepresented the technical details for the work and the state-of-the-art in facial analysis and face recognition.”

According to the open letter, there is an “indirect or direct relationship between modern facial analysis and face recognition (depending on the approach)” and that the findings of the earlier study could severely impact people’s lives, especially when applied by law enforcement.

This specific argument responds to a statement made by Amazon’s Web Services’ General Manager of Artificial Intelligence, Matthew Wood. He argues that facial analysis and facial recognition are not one and the same.

“Facial analysis and facial recognition are completely different in terms of the underlying technology and the data used to train them. Trying to use facial analysis to gauge the accuracy of facial recognition is ill-advised, as it’s not the intended algorithm for that‎ purpose,” he said.

The AI experts in the open letter raised that there are no laws or standards to ensure that the use of Rekognition remain in the manner that “it does not infringe civil liberties.”

“There are currently no laws in place to audit Rekognition’s use; Amazon has not disclosed who the customers are, nor what the error rates are across different intersectional demographics. How can we then ensure that this tool is not improperly being used as (Amazon Web Services GM for deep learning and AI Matthew Wood) states,” the open letter reads.

According to the signatories of the letter, what can be relied on in the absence of legal controls are analysis and audits of independent and unbiased researchers “with concrete numbers and clearly designed, explained, and presented experimentation, that demonstrates the types of biases that exist in these products.”

These independent studies, as the open letter said, are critical in raising alarms on using such “immature technologies” in volatile scenarios to ensure that privacy and other civil liberties are not infringed.

In the past, 85 social justice advocates, human rights activists, and religious groups have also collectively sent a letter to Microsoft, Google, and Amazon to ask them not to market their facial recognition software to the government.

Google has said that it will not be selling its technology unless all racial bias and misidentification issues are addressed while Microsoft has acknowledged that it is their company’s duty to ensure that their technology is used responsibly. On the other hand, Amazon has reportedly given a demonstration of their product to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and will pilot the use of Rekognition to the FBI.

In the new letter to Amazon, 55 artificial intelligence researchers and tech experts from various universities across the United States have attached their virtual signatures. A registry for those who agree with the letter is also open for other experts to affix their signatures as well.

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