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Amazon shareholders pressure against selling Rekognition to government

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Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., listens during an Economic Club of Washington discussion in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. 

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Jeff Bezos, founder and chief executive officer of Amazon.com Inc., listens during an Economic Club of Washington discussion in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018. 

A group of Amazon shareholders have filed a letter demanding the company to stop selling its facial recognition software to government agencies.

In a letter filed on Thursday, the investors are pushing Amazon to halt the sale of Rekognition, technology from Amazon Web Services that can identify and track people, citing concerns of potential civil and human rights risks.

The resolution was organized by Open Mic, a non-profit organization focused on corporate accountability, and was filed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, a member of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment. The shareholders supporting the letter have over $1.32 billion worth of total assets under management, according to a press statement.

“Sales of Rekognition to government represent considerable risk for the company and investors. That’s why it’s imperative those sales be halted immediately,” Michael Connor, executive director of Open Mic, said in a statement.

This is one of the first organized movements by Amazon shareholders putting pressure on the company’s sale of facial recognition software. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) first raised concerns of racial bias in the Rekognition software after conducting a test last year, and a group of employees also questioned the use of software during Amazon’s staff meeting in November.

An Amazon spokesperson pointed to blog posts the company written on the subject noting that there are positive uses of facial recognition, including fighting human trafficking and preventing package theft. One of the posts noted that the ACLU’s tests used an 80 percent confidence threshold, which would provide more false positives than the 99 percent threshold that Amazon recommends “for use cases where highly accurate face similarity matches are important.”

AWS CEO Andy Jassy told employees during the November staff meeting that the company plans to continue selling Rekognition to government agencies, saying it feels “really strongly about the value” it provides to law enforcement.

According to the letter, Amazon has sold Rekognition to law enforcement agencies in at least two states, is in the process of pitching the software to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and now is testing it with the FBI. It says investors are concerned about Amazon’s software being used “to justify the surveillance, exploitation and detention of individuals seeking to enter the U.S., posing human rights risk.”

The group is hoping Amazon would put the resolution to vote at this year’s annual shareholder meeting, which typically takes place in May.

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