The Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment

Amazon AGM Brings Attention to Facial Recognition Technology Risks

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On May 22, 2019, twelve shareholder proposals went to a vote at Amazon’s highly anticipated Annual Meeting of Shareholders in Seattle, WA. The Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood were the lead proponents of a resolution which called on Amazon to prohibit sales of facial recognition technology to government agencies unless the Board concludes, after an evaluation using independent evidence, that the technology does not cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights.

Shankar Narayan, Director of the Technology and Liberty Project at ACLU Washington, which has researched and reported on the risks of surveillance technology, attended the AGM and moved the facial recognition technology proposal on behalf of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood. Harrington Investments filed a complimentary shareholder proposal asking Amazon for a report assessing the risks of selling facial recognition technology to governments. Open MIC, a fellow ICCR member that supports investor engagements with media and technology companies, was instrumental throughout the process, from the resolution drafting to coordinating with NGO partners and the press.

The resolution received widespread media attention leading up to the annual meeting due to increasing public concern about the potential rights violations associated with government use of facial recognition surveillance technology, including risks of enabling increased targeted surveillance of immigrants, communities of color, and activists. Mary Beth Gallagher and Sister Pat Mahoney, CSJ were interviewed by several media outlets about our work on the Amazon facial recognition technology resolution.

Here are some of the highlights:

5/22/19, The Washington Post: The Technology 202: Nuns are leading the charge to pressure Amazon to get religion on facial recognition
5/22/19, BBC: Amazon set for facial recognition revolt; BBC World Business Report (radio): Amazon heads off facial recognition rebellion
5/21/19, CNN: For the first time, Amazon faces an enormous slate of shareholder proposals
5/20/19, The New York Times: Amazon Faces Investor Pressure Over Facial Recognition
5/15/19, TheStreet: Amazon’s Facial Recognition Technology Faces Some Unforeseen Risks
5/9/19, Commonweal Magazine: In Tech We Trust? Why We Should Be Wary of Amazon’s Facial Recognition Software

Five members of the Tri-State Coalition provided proxies for community organizers to attend the Amazon AGM on behalf of their institutions. The ACLU was among the larger coalition of civil rights and immigrants’ rights groups who came together as a coalition to pressure Amazon to stop selling facial recognition technology to governments.

The proposal calling to end sales of facial recognition technology to governments ultimately received 2.46% support (3.21% excluding Jeff Bezos’s shares) while the Harrington proposal calling for a report on the risks received 28.22% support (36.95% excluding Jeff Bezos’s shares). While the resolutions did not receive a majority vote, this is just the beginning of a larger movement calling for increased accountability for facial recognition technology, which may involve companies stopping sales of the technology as well as regulation. The day of the Amazon AGM coincided with a congressional hearing on the need to regulate facial recognition technology. We believe that actions must be taken by companies and government to prevent adverse impacts of this technology on the public. San Francisco recently decided to ban use of face recognition technology, and other jurisdictions are likely to follow suit.

Said Mary Beth Gallagher, Executive Director, Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment about the engagement:  “Amazon has heard from its shareholders and the powerful voices of stakeholders today, and now we turn to the Board and ask them to heed this warning call and stop selling facial recognition surveillance technology to governments.  Amazon’s investors have made clear that they are concerned about the impact that Amazon’s technology is having on society and the business. In the absence of effective mechanisms that can guarantee the protection of human rights and civil liberties of communities that are most likely to be disproportionately harmed by placing this technology in the hands of government, it is inappropriate and irresponsible for sales to continue.

We urge Amazon to begin an independent risk assessment immediately to further understand the potential impacts of this technology, and in the interim, to halt sales of Rekognition to governments until it can be sure that it is not reinforcing and perpetuating racial bias and injustice.”

Learn more about the risks of surveillance:

America Under Watch: Face Surveillance in the United States, Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, May 16, 2019
Garbage In, Garbage Out: Face Recognition on Flawed Data, Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology, May 16, 2019
Peter Thiel’s Palantir Was Used to Bust Relatives of Migrant Children, New Documents Show, The Intercept, May 2, 2019

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