Jul 26, 2018

Why it matters: Facial recognition's racial bias problem

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Amazon’s facial recognition system, Rekognition, falsely matched 28 U.S. congressmen with criminal mugshots, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote in a blog post Thursday.

Why it matters: The result of the test, which compared all 535 members of Congress against 25,000 public mugshots, fuels the debate over whether algorithmic bias singles out more minorities by law enforcement.

An Amazon Web Services spokesperson told us the service should be used "to review and consider options using their judgement and not to make fully autonomous decisions."

  • Still, there's nothing to prevent how law enforcement agencies use Amazon's facial recognition system.

The details:

  • About 40% of Rekognition’s false matches in ACLU’s test were people of color. Only 20% of the current members of Congress are people of color, showing false matches affected that group at a higher rate.
  • Six incorrect matches were members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis.
  • The technology could further bias an officer, as individuals start “being questioned or having their home searched, based on a false identification,” ACLU said.
  • There is no data from Rokognition on bias testing, per The Verge.
  • The New York Times tested out Rekognition's API in June showing how facial recognition could help identify politicians while reporting on Capitol Hill. Though in one instance, Rekognition incorrectly identified  Florida Sen. Bill Nelson with actor Bill Paxton.

What they're saying:

  • The Congressional Black Congress sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in May about the risks of Rekognition’s usage by law enforcement.
  • In June, a group of Amazon employees sent a letter to Bezos concerned about the ethics of the technology when used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, per The Hill.
  • Officers from Hillsboro, Ore., expressed concern through email exchanges about how “Big Brother” a partnership with Amazon may appear, per Gizmodo.

The other side: In ACLU's particular situation, Amazon Rekognition is not meant to be the sole decider, an Amazon Web Services spokesperson tells Axios.

“While 80% confidence is an acceptable threshold for photos of hot dogs, chairs, animals, or other social media use cases, it wouldn’t be appropriate for identifying individuals with a reasonable level of certainty. When using facial recognition for law enforcement activities, we guide customers to set a threshold of at least 95% or higher.”
— AWS spokesperson

The bottom line: Facial recognition systems have long struggled with high error rates for women and people of color, raising questions about their broader use, especially in a public safety context.

Go deeper:

Go deeper

Protests for George Floyd continue for 10th day

Thousands of protesters march over the Brooklyn Bridge on June 4 in New York City. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

All four former Minneapolis police officers have been charged for George Floyd’s death and are in custody, including Thomas Lane, J. Alexander Kueng and Tou Thao, who were charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and aiding and abetting second-degree manslaughter.

The latest: Crowds gathered in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on Thursday evening and in Atlanta, Georgia, despite the rain. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms joined demonstrators on Thursday. Demonstrators in Washington, D.C. dispersed following a thunderstorm and rain warning for the region.

Trump says he will campaign against Lisa Murkowski after her support for Mattis

Trump with Barr and Meadows outside St. John's Episcopal church in Washington, D.C. on June 1. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Trump tweeted on Thursday that he would endorse "any candidate" with a pulse who runs against Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

Driving the news: Murkowski said on Thursday that she supported former defense secretary James Mattis' condemnation of Trump over his response to protests in the wake of George Floyd's killing. She described Mattis' statement as "true, honest, necessary and overdue," Politico's Andrew Desiderio reports.

2 hours ago - World

The president vs. the Pentagon

Trump visits Mattis and the Pentagon in 2018. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty

Over the course of just a few hours, President Trump was rebuffed by the Secretary of Defense over his call for troops in the streets and accused by James Mattis, his former Pentagon chief, of trampling the Constitution for political gain.

Why it matters: Current and former leaders of the U.S. military are drawing a line over Trump's demand for a militarized response to the protests and unrest that have swept the country over the killing of George Floyd by police.