Citing critical concerns over immigrant surveillance of vulnerable communities, racial profiling, and other civil and human rights violations, Amazon shareholders have filed a resolution asking the company to prohibit sales of “Rekognition”, Amazon’s facial recognition technology, to government agencies — unless the company’s Board concludes the technology does not pose actual or potential civil and human rights risk.
The resolution, organized by Open MIC, a non-profit that fosters shareholder engagement at leading tech and media companies, was filed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, a member of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment. Joined by co-filers, the group of shareholders introducing the proposal represent a total of $1.32 billion in assets under management.
Rekognition, which is marketed by Amazon Web Services, performs image and video analysis of faces, including identifying and tracking people and their emotions. Tests of the technology have raised concerns that it is biased, inaccurate and dangerous. In one test, Rekognition technology disproportionally misidentified African-American and Latino members of the U.S. Congress as people in criminal mug shots, incorrectly matching 28 members of Congress with people who had been arrested, amounting to a 5 percent error rate among legislators -- and an even higher one among members of color.
The shareholder resolution echoes concerns of over 70 civil rights and civil liberties groups, hundreds of Amazon’s own employees, and 150,000 people who signed a petition — all seeking to end sales of Rekognition to government agencies.
Michael Connor, Executive Director of Open MIC, which helped organize the resolution, said: “It’s a familiar pattern: a leading tech company marketing what is hailed as breakthrough technology without understanding or assessing the many real and potential harms of that product. Sales of Rekognition to government represent considerable risk for the company and investors. That’s why it’s imperative those sales be halted immediately.”
Mary Beth Gallagher, Executive Director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, said: The sale by Amazon Web Services of facial recognition technology to government agencies may lead to increased targeted surveillance of people of color, immigrants, and activists, and risks causing human rights and civil rights violations, including of privacy and First Amendment rights,” “Our proposal encourages Amazon to prohibit future sales of its Rekognition software to government agencies until the company has fully evaluated actual and potential human rights impacts of this technology.”
Reports indicate Amazon sold Rekognition to law enforcement in at least two states, proposed the technology to ICE, and that the FBI is now testing it. Investors are concerned that Amazon's technology will be used by local and federal government agencies to justify the surveillance, exploitation and detention of individuals seeking to enter the U.S., posing human rights risk.
“As women religious, with institutional investments, we call on companies we hold to respect human rights in all they do. We’re especially aware of the risks facing vulnerable populations. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood have committed as a congregation to support immigrant communities and promote racial equity, and this applies to our investments. Therefore, we filed this proposal because we are concerned that Amazon has pitched facial recognition technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and piloted its Rekognition with police departments, without fully assessing potential human rights impacts,” said Sister Patricia Mahoney, of CSJ Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood.
Wary of regulatory and reputational risk, the shareholder resolution recommends that Amazon’s Board of Directors consult with technology and civil liberties experts and civil and human rights advocates to assess:
“The extent to which such technology may endanger or violate privacy or civil rights, and disproportionately impact people of color, immigrants, and activists, and how Amazon would mitigate these risks.
The extent to which such technologies may be marketed and sold to repressive governments, identified by the United States Department of State Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.”
The race by companies to deploy facial recognition technology across multiple industries without appropriate due diligence to assess the potential harms is a matter of widespread concern. The shareholder resolution notes that Microsoft Corp. has called for government regulation of facial recognition technology, saying, “if we move too fast, we may find that people’s fundamental rights are being broken.”
A full text of the shareholder resolution, which is intended to be voted on at Amazon’s annual meeting in Spring 2019, can be downloaded here.
Michael Connor, (646) 470-7748