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Amazon Announces 1-Year Moratorium On Police Use Of Its Facial-Recognition Technology

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When Amazon introduced its facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies, the tech giant likened it to magic. Now Amazon is telling police, stop using it for the next year. It's a move that signals the impact protests over police brutality are having on the tech industry. NPR's Bobby Allyn reports. And we should note Amazon is a financial supporter of NPR.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Amazon for years has offered a service called Rekognition to police departments. Here's how it works. Officers can take a smartphone photo or use a grainy picture from a security camera and try to match it against a massive database of mug shots stored in the cloud.

Adam Scott Wandt is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

ADAM SCOTT WANDT: Your average police officer, instead of having to try to figure out who committed the crime, could pass one of these videos to a facial recognition system, which will help point them in the right direction.

ALLYN: He says there are many types of crimes where facial recognition technology can help.

WANDT: Kidnapping, missing children, human exploitation, bank robberies, home burglaries.

ALLYN: But there are big problems with facial recognition. MIT researcher Joy Buolamwini has documented them.

JOY BUOLAMWINI: All of these systems work better on lighter-skinned faces than darker-skinned faces. They all overall work better on male-identified faces than female-identified faces.

ALLYN: In other words, people of color and women are more likely to be misidentified by this technology. That's why cities from San Francisco to Northampton, Mass., have banned governments from using it. Amazon has fought back - loudly - saying researchers are overblowing the flaws of its system. Buolamwini says even if the face-scanning tool becomes flawless, she fears it can be used for mass surveillance at events like large protests.

BUOLAMWINI: What kind of society do we want to live in? And we do not want to live in a society where going outside, exercising your First Amendment rights because you're speaking up for what's right lands you in trouble for nothing else than that your face was visible.

ALLYN: Amazon never mentions George Floyd or the protests his death sparked in announcing the one-year freeze. Instead, Amazon says the pause is to give Congress time to, quote, "put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology." Some companies have gone even further. Microsoft says it will not begin selling face-scanning software to police until there's a national law. And IBM this week condemned technology that can be used for racial profiling and mass surveillance. It's quitting the facial recognition business altogether.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BLAZE SONG, "TERRITORY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.

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