Shareholders pile pressure on Amazon over controversial facial recognition technology

Facial recognition software is coming under increasing scrutiny from civil liberties groups and lawmakers. Now Amazon, one of the most visible purveyors of the technology, is facing pressure from another corner as well: its own shareholders.

As part of Amazon’s annual meeting in Seattle on Wednesday, investors are voting on whether the tech giant’s aggressive push to spread the surveillance software threatens civil rights — and, as a consequence, the company’s reputation and profits.

Shareholders have introduced two proposals on facial recognition for a vote. One asks the company to prohibit sales of its facial recognition system, called Amazon Rekognition, to government agencies, unless its board concludes that the technology does not facilitate human rights violations. The other asks the company to commission an independent report examining the extent to which Rekognition may threaten civil, human and privacy rights, and the company’s finances.

“This piece of equipment that Amazon has fostered and developed and is really propagating at this point doesn’t seem to us to be in the best interest of the common good,” said Sister Pat Mahoney, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph, a religious community in Brentwood, N.Y., that is an Amazon investor and introduced the proposed sales ban. “Facial recognition all over the place just makes everyone live in a police state.”

The proposals are nonbinding, meaning they do not require the company to take action, even if they receive a majority vote. But they add to the growing resistance to facial surveillance technology by elected officials, civil liberties groups and even some Amazon employees.

Last week, San Francisco banned the use of facial surveillance technology by the police and other city agencies. Oakland, Calif., and Somerville, Mass., near Boston, are considering similar bans. Earlier this year, state lawmakers in Massachusetts and California introduced bills that would restrict its use by government agencies. On Wednesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform is holding a hearing on the civil rights implications of facial surveillance.

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