Amazon investors are cranking up the pressure on Jeff Bezos to stop selling facial recognition tech to government agencies

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Jeff BezosAmazon CEO Jeff Bezos.Getty

  • Amazon shareholders with shares worth $1.32 billion have filed a resolution aimed at stopping the company selling its controversial facial recognition technology to government agencies.
  • The five investors want Amazon's board to investigate the technology and conclude it "does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights."
  • It is the first time an investor proposal has been put forward on the Rekognition software, and could be the first of its kind at any US company.
  • Civil liberties organizations, academics, and Amazon employees have all protested against the technology.

Amazon shareholders are upping the pressure on CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling the company's facial recognition technology to government agencies - unless it can provide assurances it does not pose a human rights risk.

A group of five investors, with $1.32 billion of Amazon shares under management, have filed a resolution calling for Amazon to take a step back from sales of its Rekognition software.

The resolution is spearheaded by Long Island-based Catholic women's order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, with the support of Open Mic, an organization that helps shareholders campaign to improve governance at some of America's biggest companies.

It is the first time an investor proposal has been put forward on Rekognition, and Open Mic thinks it might be the first protest of its kind against facial recognition software at any US company.

The activist investors want Amazon's board to investigate the technology and conclude it "does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights" before selling it government bodies, including law enforcement. They recommend consulting with civil liberties experts and human rights advocates.

Amazon has described Rekognition as a facial recognition tool that can be used for such purposes as "preventing human trafficking" and "inhibiting child exploitation." But the ACLU revealed in May last year that Amazon had sold Rekognition to government and police agencies for the purpose of public surveillance and to identify "people of interest."

Read more: Amazon employees are reportedly gearing up to confront CEO Jeff Bezos at an all-staff meeting this week about selling facial recognition software to law enforcement

Civil liberties organizations, academics, and Amazon employees have all protested against the technology, with the latest intervention coming just this week when 85 activist groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, sent letters to Microsoft, Amazon, and Google demanding they stop selling facial recognition software.

Amazon investors have also voiced their concerns previously. In June last year, 19 shareholder groups wrote to Bezos with similar demands to those made on Thursday. One of the co-filers of today's proposal, the Maryknoll Sisters, signed that letter to Bezos in 2018, which can be read in full here.

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

He and the five co-filers want investors to vote on the resolution at Amazon's annual shareholder meeting over the summer. Amazon can engage in a dialogue, ask the investors to withdraw the proposal, argue with the SEC that it should not go to a vote, or do nothing. If Amazon submits to the SEC that the vote should not go ahead, investors will fight that claim.

As well as the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, the co-filers are: The Sisters of St. Francis Charitable Trust (Dubuque), Sisters Of St Francis Of Philadelphia, Maryknoll Sisters, and Azzad Asset Management.

Here is the resolution in full:

Whereas, shareholders are concerned Amazon's facial recognition technology ("Rekognition") poses risk to civil and human rights and shareholder value.

Civil liberties organizations, academics, and shareholders have demanded Amazon halt sales of Rekognition to government, concerned that our Company is enabling a surveillance system "readily available to violate rights and target communities of color." Four hundred fifty Amazon employees echoed this demand, posing a talent and retention risk.

Brian Brackeen, former Chief Executive Officer of facial recognition company Kairos, said, "Any company in this space that willingly hands [facial recognition] software over to a government, be it America or another nation's, is willfully endangering people's lives."

In Florida and Oregon, police have piloted Rekognition. Amazon Web Services already provides cloud computing services to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and is reportedly marketing Rekognition to ICE, despite concerns Rekognition could facilitate immigrant surveillance and racial profiling.

Rekognition contradicts Amazon's opposition to facilitating surveillance. In 2016, Amazon supported a lawsuit against government "gag orders," stating: "the fear of secret surveillance could limit the adoption and use of cloud services … Users should not be put to a choice between reaping the benefits of technological innovation and maintaining the privacy rights guaranteed by the Constitution."

Shareholders have little evidence our Company is effectively restricting the use of Rekognition to protect privacy and civil rights. In July 2018, a reporter asked Amazon executive Teresa Carlson whether Amazon has "drawn any red lines, any standards, guidelines, on what you will and you will not do in terms of defense work." Carlson responded: "We have not drawn any lines there...We are unwaveringly in support of our law enforcement, defense, and intelligence community."

In July 2018, lawmakers asked the Government Accountability Office to study whether "commercial entities selling facial recognition adequately audit use of their technology to ensure that use is not unlawful, inconsistent with terms of service, or otherwise raise privacy, civil rights, and civil liberties concerns."

Microsoft 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."

Resolved, shareholders request that the Board of Directors prohibit sales of facial recognition technology to government agencies unless the Board concludes, after an evaluation using independent evidence, that the technology does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights.

Supporting Statement: Proponents recommend the Board 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.
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