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. 

Emerging Tech

Death from above? How we’re preparing for a future filled with weaponized drones

Drones are beginning to enable everything from search & rescue, to the delivery of medicines to hard-to-reach places. But they are also being used as cheap, and deadly flying bombs. How can we defend ourselves?
Emerging Tech

Elon Musk to give free rides in first Boring Company tunnel in December

Members of the public will soon get to find out if Elon Musk's high-speed tunnel plan is a serious effort at reducing traffic congestion or little more than a fancy theme park ride, with free rides being offered from December.
Movies & TV

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

There's more to Amazon Prime than free two-day shipping, including access to a number of phenomenal shows at no extra cost. To make the sifting easier, here are our favorite shows currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Home Theater

What’s new on Amazon Prime Video (November 2018)

Amazon Prime Video adds new titles each month that are available for free to all Prime members. Check out our list to find all the content hitting Amazon Prime Video in October and November 2018, from new original series to classic films.
Emerging Tech

SpaceX Starlink: Here’s everything you need to know

SpaceX Starlink is the name of Elon Musk's ambitious plan to blanket the globe with high speed broadband internet via a network of satellites. Here's everything you need to know about it
Emerging Tech

Flying food: Uber has set a target date to use drones for meal delivery

Uber is better known for transporting people around town, but it also has a growing meal-delivery business called UberEats. It currently uses drivers and cyclists to deliver the food, but also has plans to use drones.
Emerging Tech

From electron microscopes to X-rays, high-tech tools expose low-tech art forgery

At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, conservation scientist Greg Smith and Glennis Rayermann, then a Ph.D student, used high-tech equipment to determine if a painting was made by master forger Icilio Federico Joni.

NYPD pulls thousands of body cams after one explodes

The NYPD has recalled thousands of body cameras after one of them exploded during an officer's shift on Sunday, October 21. No one was injured in the incident, which is thought to have been caused by the device's battery.
Emerging Tech

There’s finally a way to trace ‘untraceable’ 3D printed guns

To help track 3D-printed guns, researchers have developed a new algorithm which is able to identify which 3D printer was used to print an object, based on its unique fingerprint. Here's how.
Emerging Tech

These solar-powered water purifiers can produce 30,000 gallons of water per day

Problems with contaminated water? Quench Water & Solar's water purifiers can purify up to 30,000 gallons of fresh water per day and it's offering the technology to whoever wants it.
Smart Home

Silo A.I. vacuum storage system tells you when your leftovers are going bad

"Alexa, is the chicken still OK to eat?" Newly launched on Kickstarter, Silo is a neat vacuum storage container that will extend your food's shelf life -- and add in a useful dose of A.I., too.
Emerging Tech

Watch the moment NASA releases 450,000 gallons of water onto a launch pad

NASA's next-generation rocket will be one of the most powerful ever made and at launch will generate a colossal amount of heat and noise. Here's what it's going to do to control all that energy ...
Emerging Tech

World’s first drone-equipped motorcycle features a special space for the Spark

If your sidecar is missing a drone or your drone a sidecar, then check out how the two machines have been brought together in this unique design from Ural Motorcycles. Only 40 have been made, though that may turn out to be enough.
Product Review

North’s Focals aim to keep you ‘heads-up’ with smartglasses

North, formerly known as Thalmic Labs, has unveiled a new product alongside the brand-name change. Focals is a pair of smartglasses, like Google Glass, that attempts to help keep you heads-up.