Amazon shareholders to vote on banning sales of facial recognition tech to governments

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What just happened? Amazon’s facial recognition technology, dubbed Rekognition, has proven to be controversial, not least because the technology has been sold to and trialled by numerous police forces. Back in January, Amazon’s shareholders proposed a ban on sales of Rekognition to governments until the company can prove it’s not harming people’s rights. Now, after some wrangling, a date has been set for the shareholder’s vote.

Last year the world found out about Rekognition, facial recognition technology developed and sold by Amazon. Unsurprisingly, the company came under fire from privacy advocates and civil liberties organizations. But criticism came from within, too, when hundreds of employees wrote to CEO Jeff Bezos to voice their concern.

The most impactful opposition to the uninhibited sale of Rekognition has come from Amazon’s own shareholders. In January, a group of shareholders put forward a proposition to ban the sale of Rekognition to governments until Amazon could prove that “the technology does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights.”

Since then, Amazon has been trying to fight the proposal. Amazon attempted to use rules set by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to try and avoid a shareholder vote on the matter. But the SEC ruled against Amazon on March 28, and again on April 3 after Amazon appealed.

Now Amazon is facing up to the realities of their shareholder’s rights, and have said that a vote will take place at their annual shareholder meeting on May 22.

There are some important points to note. First, the sales ban is only to governments and governmental agencies. Even if the vote were to be successful, Amazon would not be prohibited from selling Rekognition to any other private company or individual. It may even be the case that law enforcement agencies could outsource facial recognition to third party companies who may still be able to buy the technology.

Second, the ban would only be in place unless or until Amazon could provide “independent evidence” that no rights were being harmed. Whichever way the vote goes, we’ll be sure to update you on May 22.

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