Amazon defeated Rekognition revolt by a large margin

By Leo Kelion
Technology desk editor

Image source, Amazon
Image caption,
A proposal to ban government use of the Rekognition system failed to attract mass support at Amazon's annual general meeting

An attempted shareholder revolt over Amazon's sale of facial recognition technology to the police mustered less than 3% of votes cast at the firm's annual general meeting.

The tech firm had said it was aware of civil rights concerns but had not received any reports of law enforcement clients misusing its Rekognition tool.

Even so, the system is set for further scrutiny.

Last week, Republican and Democrat politicians on the House Oversight Committee raised concerns about the speed at which Amazon's facial recognition facility and others like it were being deployed.

"My office has had nine meetings with representatives from Amazon. We ask questions of experts across the spectrum, and my concerns only grow day by day," commented Democrat congressman Jimmy Gomez.

"Shareholders did not not end up passing a ban of Rekognition... and you know what? That just means it's more important Congress acts."

Republican congressman Jim Jordan added: "It is virtually unregulated but I think that frankly that needs to change."

Image source, Amazon
Image caption,
Amazon's marketing materials promote Rekognition as a crime-fighting tool

For its part, Amazon has said that it should be up to lawmakers rather than individual companies to decide what restrictions should be put in place.

"To the extent there may be ambiguities or uncertainties in how existing laws should apply to facial recognition technology, we have and will continue to offer our support to policymakers and legislators in identifying areas to develop guidance or legislation to clarify the proper application of those laws," the company said.

Independent study

The ballot at last Wednesday's annual general meeting was held on the basis of one share, one vote.

The proposal to ban governments from making use of Rekognition garnered close to 8.3 million votes, but that figure was dwarfed by the 327 million votes placed in opposition. In addition, there were about 5.5 million abstentions.

That means that the idea only garnered 2.4% support.

Image source, Amazon
Image caption,
Rekognition can give a confidence score for several different features

It needed more than 50% to pass, although even that outcome would still not have been binding on the company's board.

A second vote was also held, calling on Amazon to commission an independent study into the risks posed to the general public's privacy rights and to specifically address concerns that Rekognition could lead to the disproportionate surveillance of people of colour, immigrants and activists.

This attracted 94.2 million votes in favour of the proposal and 239.6 million votes against, with 8.2 million abstentions.

That represented 27.5% support for the idea, which again was well short of the threshold.

Chinese competitor

In the short-term, attention may now turn to one of Amazon's facial-recognition rivals.

The Bloomberg news agency and CNBC are reporting the Trump administration is considering adding the China-based maker of the Face++ system to a trade blacklist.

The move would prevent Megvii from making use of US-related technologies and components or otherwise doing business with American organisations.

Face++ had much lower error rates at identifying women and people with darker skin tones compared with Rekognition, according to a recent study.

Image source, Megvii
Image caption,
Megvii recently raised $750m (£591m) in investment, valuing the firm as being worth $4bn

Megvii said it instructs clients not to use its technology to infringe human rights.

"We are not aware of being on any US government list," a spokeswoman told the BBC.

"Unfortunately, the current geopolitical climate leads to inaccurate and unhelpful speculation about individual companies.

"Megvii believes in the power of artificial intelligence to solve problems and make a positive social impact, and we want to collaborate with global peers to promote best practices in AI applications."

The US Commerce Department has already placed the Chinese telecoms firm Huawei on its so-called Entity List.

Were Megvii to suffer the same fate, it could frustrate an expected listing on the Hong Kong stock exchange later this year. The US banks Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan are advising it on the flotation, according to Reuters.

Update 5 June 2019: A previous version of this story stated, based on a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, Megvii's Face++ code was being used by Chinese police for repression. This claim has since been removed from the report and so we have amended our article accordingly.