NOEL KING, HOST:
Amazon says it will temporarily stop giving law enforcement agencies access to its facial recognition software. Earlier this week, IBM said it would stop its work on this type of technology. NPR's Bobby Allyn has been reporting on all of this. And before we get started, I will note that NPR does get financial support from Amazon.
Bobby, good morning.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning.
KING: So Amazon is the place that a lot of us get a lot of our stuff, but it also has a more low-key, though thriving, business providing facial recognition software to law enforcement. Tell us about that business.
ALLYN: Sure. It's called Rekognition. Amazon spells that with a K. And in recent years, they have been selling it to police departments, and police departments have been using it to identify potential suspects by checking photos against a giant database of mug shots that are stored digitally in the cloud.
But then a bunch of studies took a really hard look at this tool and found a lot of problems. So this facial recognition tool has a hard time correctly identifying people with darker skin, harder time identifying women and younger people. One audit even found when members of Congress were ran through this Amazon tool that nearly two dozen of them were matched to people who had been arrested for committing crimes. So those were false matches, yeah.
So I talked to a MIT researcher. Her name is Joy Buolamwini. And she has been studying Amazon's technology, and here's her assessment.
JOY BUOLAMWINI: Racial biases, gender bias, even has age bias - but even if that bias wasn't there, there's still the capacity for abuse. And most concerningly, especially as we're seeing more people take to the streets, is the specter of using facial recognition for surveillance.
ALLYN: So as Buolamwini says, the protests across the country have created some intense concern about the algorithms here. And you know, that fear about mass surveillance this week drove IBM to abandon its facial recognition line of business completely.
KING: OK, I do understand the concern about mass surveillance. How are police departments actually using it?
ALLYN: Yeah, so this is how it works. So say you get pulled over, and a deputy comes up to you. The deputy can take your photo with his phone and upload that into this system. And the system will scan hundreds of thousands of mug shots and see if you have been arrested for a crime in the past several years. They can even do this with someone's social media photo. They can do it with sort of a grainy security camera picture. And police say this is really helpful when a suspect, you know, refuses to give their name or when they're, you know, looking at someone on a crime scene who is unconscious.
But you know, the MIT researcher I talked to, Buolamwini, she's worried about, you know, use of this technology outside of government, about people who can use it for other uses.
KING: You know, Bobby, I wonder - did Amazon come right out and cop to doing this, to making this move, because of the protests over George Floyd's killing and over racial injustice in this country?
ALLYN: You know, Noel, that's certainly the backdrop here. But in Amazon's really brief announcement, they made no mention of George Floyd's name. They did not say anything about the unrest we're seeing. Instead, they said they're halting the facial recognition software in order to allow Congress to develop some regulations. And you know, this creep into what some people call policing by algorithm has caused pushback from even inside of Amazon. Some of Amazon's own investors and employees have real fears about this and have made them known.
KING: But what does it mean for law enforcement agencies that were already using it?
ALLYN: Yeah. So Amazon has never revealed a complete list of all of the law enforcement agencies that use this technology, but I did talk to the sheriff's office in Washington County, Ore. It's the third-largest law enforcement agency in the state. They were using it - using it quite a bit. And they said, since we heard that Amazon is forcing us to stop, we're going to stop. So they're not going to be using it for at least the next year.
KING: OK. But one thing we all know about businesses and competition is that somebody's going to step in and fill the void, right? There's got to be an Amazon competitor out there like, we got it.
ALLYN: Yeah, right. So Microsoft also has similar technology. There's other IT and surveillance companies that offer a similar service. So just because Amazon is halting doesn't mean it's going to go away.
KING: NPR's Bobby Allyn, such interesting reporting. Thanks, Bobby.
ALLYN: Thank you, Noel.
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