Amazon’s facial ID incorrectly identifies members of Congress as criminals

Congress members want a meeting with Jeff Bezos to discuss Rekognition mistakes

amazon rekognition confuses congress criminals

Amazon may want to go back to the drawing board for this one. A facial recognition tool the retail giant currently offers developers made quite the mistake in a test conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), The New York Times reports. Rather than identifying 28 members of Congress as members of the country’s legislative branch, the tool instead classified these individuals as police suspects. To make matters worse, a disproportionate number of African-American and Latino Congress members were incorrectly identified, raising questions of how far racial profiling has embedded itself even in our machine learning software.

Now, Congress wants answers. Five of the misidentified lawmakers are requesting an “immediate” meeting with Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. On Thursday, July 26, Reps. Jimmy Gomez, John Lewis, Luis Gutierrez, and Mark DeSaulnier, as well as Sen. Edward Markey, sent letters to the online retail giant asking why they were mismatched. But beyond the personal effects of these cases of mistaken identity, the congressmen are asking for answers as to “how to address the defects of this technology in order to prevent inaccurate outcomes.”

Amazon has not indicated yet whether its chief executive will accept these meetings.

In a separate statement, Rep. G.K. Butterfield noted, “I am troubled by the inaccurate outcomes associated with this technology, as there are clear blind spots that will have unintended consequences specifically for people of color. While this technology could have far-reaching economic potential, I encourage Amazon to better train its users on best practices for using this technology, be open and up-front about its limitations, and hire more employees of color who can properly assist with addressing the defects of this technology.”

Among the misidentified lawmakers were Reps. John Lewis and Bobby Rush, both of whom are well-known civil rights leaders and members of the Congressional Black Caucus. But instead of being recognized as elected representatives, these two men (along with 26 others), were falsely flagged as criminals. These mistakes occurred when the ACLU took Amazon’s software to analyze images of all members of Congress against a database of 25,000 publicly accessible mugshots. This resulted in the 28 Congress members being incorrectly identified as lawbreakers, which represents a 5 percent error rate.

amazon rekognition confuses congress criminals racial bias

“This test confirms that facial recognition is flawed, biased, and dangerous,” Jacob Snow, a technology and civil liberties lawyer with the ACLU of Northern California, told The New York Times.

In response to the test, Nina Lindsey, an Amazon Web Services spokeswoman, said that the ACLU used the face matching tool (called Amazon Rekognition) differently from Amazon’s recommendations. “It is worth noting that in real-world scenarios, Amazon Rekognition is almost exclusively used to help narrow the field and allow humans to expeditiously review and consider options using their judgment,” Lindsey said in a statement.

She further pointed out that the ACLU kept the tool’s “confidence threshold” at the default of 80 percent. This means that the group took into account any face matched as 80 percent similar to the police database. However, it’s worth pointing out that Amazon uses the same threshold in an example on its website, showing how employees’ faces can be matched with their ID badges. Lindsey said that in the case of police departments, Amazon recommends that a threshold of 95 percent similarity be implemented to avoid these sorts of mistakes.

amazon rekognition confuses congress criminals scan
Rep. Sanford Bishop (D-Ga.) was falsely identified by Amazon Rekognition as someone who had been arrested for a crime. ACLU

Amazon has previously come under fire for selling Rekognition. In May, 24 civil liberties groups, led by the ACLU, penned a letter to Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos requesting that the software cease being sold to law enforcement agencies. The groups expressed concerns that the software could be used to surveil protestors, immigrants, or general members of the public, rather than just police suspects. Amazon employees, investors, and academics have since made similar demands of Amazon.

For the time being, however, that doesn’t seem to be in the cards for the web giant. As Amazon’s spokesperson said, “We remain excited about how image and video analysis can be a driver for good in the world.”

Updated on July 27: Congress is demanding answers from Amazon regarding the mistakes made by its Rekognition software. 


You don’t need to go autonomous to make trucking safer

Long haul truckers are very good at their jobs, but they face long hours and unpredictable conditions. Autonomous tech may be coming, but here’s how lidar technology companies are working to enhance trucking safety today.

T-Mobile attempts to reinvent customer service with its new ‘Team of Experts’

In an attempt to reinvent how it approaches customer care, T-Mobile announced its Team of Experts. Whenever a customer contacts T-Mobile, they're given direct access to the same team members each time without being put on hold or…

Steam survey shows PC gamers are still mostly playing in 1080p and lower

Valve Software’s latest hardware and software survey for July 2reveals that 63.72 percent of Steam’s registered members still play games with a 1080p resolution. Even more, only 1.14 percent are playing at a 4K resolution.
Movies & TV

'Prime'-time TV: Here are the best shows on Amazon Prime right now

Amazon Prime brings more perks than just free two-day shipping. Subscribers get access to a huge library of TV shows to stream at no extra cost. Here are our favorite TV shows currently available on Amazon Prime.
Movies & TV

The best shows on Netflix in August, from ‘Arrested Development’ to ‘Dark Tourist’

Looking for a new show to binge? Lucky for you, we've curated a list of the best shows on Netflix, whether you're a fan of outlandish anime, dramatic period pieces, or shows that leave you questioning what lies beyond.
Emerging Tech

No keyboard? No problem. Masterkey will project you a virtual one to type on

Miss having a physical keyboard when you're out and about? Wish you could have a mobile display bigger than your smartphone can offer? Masterkey 4.0 is a wireless projector that promises to help.
Emerging Tech

Be a master of your own ever-changing ‘galaxy’ with this kinetic wall art

Art Machine is a stunning work of kinetic art that looks like a continuously swirling galaxy or turbulent weather formation viewed through a ship's porthole. Check it out in all its glory.
Emerging Tech

Omega Centauri hosts 10 million stars and probably not an ounce of life

Omega Centauri is about 16,000 light years away, making it visible to the naked eye. And it contains some 10 million stars, making it the largest globular cluster in the Milky Way. But it probably doesn't have an ounce of life.
Emerging Tech

The world’s first practical quantum computer has cash and a timeline

The dream of building a practical quantum computer could be closer than ever, thanks to a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation to seven universities around the United States.
Emerging Tech

Forget flying cars: This shoe-tying robot is proof that the future is here

Engineering students from the University of California, Davis, recently built a robot whose sole personality in life is to tie shoelaces. It cost them under $600 to do it as well!
Emerging Tech

Bizarre stork robot uses a drone to compensate for its weak, twig-like legs

Developed by engineers from Japan’s University of Tokyo, Aerial Biped is a robot whose top half is comprised of a flying quadrotor UAV that's rooted to the ground by thin stork-like legs.
Emerging Tech

A treasure trove of 3D scientific specimens is now free to see online

Thanks to the California Academy of Sciences, you can access more than 700 scientific specimens and artifacts from the world-class collection via the online 3D and virtual reality platform Sketchfab.
Emerging Tech

Lyd is a battery-powered, ‘no-spill’ bottle that is activated by your lips

Lyd is a battery-powered bottle that’s something like a sippy cup for adults. Its no-spill solution is a specialized lid that uses an algorithm to detect when your lips are on the bottle.
Emerging Tech

Cotton and corn! Reebok’s newest sneaker is ‘made from things that grow’

Keen to move away from using oil-based materials to make its footwear, Reebok has turned to cotton and corn for its latest sneaker. No dyes have been used to color the shoes, either, and the packaging is 100 percent recyclable.