With Rekognition, Amazon could squander trust

Facial recognition is facing a backlash and Amazon is an easy target.

Abstract image of faces

Facial recognition technology has valuable uses but it’s facing a backlash. Surveillance and privacy are headline issues and there’s been a sharp increase in awareness of facial recognition technology - its presence and its downsides.

Amazon’s facial recognition product, Rekognition, is part of the reason - it’s making headlines as it gets adopted by commercial and government organizations. Amazon’s Rekognition technology is cheap and easy. In one law enforcement application, Washington County spent about $700 to upload its first big haul of photos, and now, for all its searches, pays about $7 a month. Literally anyone can use it - even your kid’s summer camp.

But facial recognition is no ordinary technology which means that Rekognition is no ordinary product. For vendors of facial recognition technology, it matters how customers use it. Amazon’s laser focused, customer-first strategy might reveal a potential blindspot - there’s an ethical skin around this product that Amazon isn’t getting right, which is creating the flow-on effect of sensitizing people to facial recognition as a privacy-invasive technology.

Rekognition can be misused or overused (or perceived to be) and Amazon hasn’t done much to prevent this. The company’s product strategy is “all care, no responsibility” which isn’t good enough. Rekognition needs more than a safety warning and an instruction manual. While Amazon provides guidelines for accuracy and deployment, it hasn’t set any kind of constraints that might signal that the industry can self-regulate and assure responsible use. (Both Microsoft and Google have taken far more aggressive stances on the technology, with Google not selling it at all). Amazon has now called for the government to regulate. As you’d expect, it’s writing the draft rules.

Amazon has a lot to lose. It has long stood out as the tech company that people trust the most. It wants to use this position to disrupt markets with even more valuable and personally sensitive data - finance and health, for example. But could perceptions of Rekognition’s wide-spread use tip the balance and precipitate a full-on privacy revolt?

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