Amazon is writing what it hopes will become U.S. law governing use of face recognition technology.

What happened: At a press event announcing new features for Amazon’s Alexa smart-home service, Jeff Bezos told a reporter that his company’s lawyers are drafting a statutory framework to guide what he views as an inevitable federal crackdown on face recognition. Amazon sells the cloud-based face recognition service Rekognition, whose use by law enforcement agencies has raised alarm among civil liberties advocates.

What it says: The company has released no details about the model legislation in progress. However, in February, Amazon VP of Global Public Policy Michael Punke published a blog that could provide clues to the company’s aims.

  • Face recognition should be used in accordance with existing laws, Punke writes in the post proposing ethical guidelines for the technology. He points out that the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment and Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly outline an individual’s right to privacy and freedom from discrimination.
  • Law enforcement groups, government agencies, and businesses using face recognition should be held to high standards of transparency, the post says.
  • Law enforcement should be allowed to use the technology only to narrow down groups of suspects, and only when a model is at least 99 percent confident in its prediction. Models should never be used as the final arbiter of a person’s guilt or innocence.

Behind the news: Face recognition’s rapid proliferation has spawned a widespread backlash in the U.S. cities. San Francisco and Oakland, California, and Somerville, Massachusetts, have banned the technology. California’s legislature is considering a statewide ban. Several bills restricting its use are wending their way through Congress, and two representatives have vowed to propose further legislation.

We’re thinking: Punke’s guidelines are sound, and Amazon is well situated to understand how the technology could be abused. When industries propose their own regulations, though, legislators need to take special care to make sure any resulting laws benefit society as a whole.


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