Amazon shareholders reject facial recognition sale ban to governments

Amazon shareholders have rejected two proposals that would have requested the company not to sell its facial recognition technology to government customers.

The breakdown of the votes is not immediately known. A filing with the vote tally is expected later this week.

The first proposal would have requested Amazon to limit the sale of its Rekognition technology to police, law enforcement and federal agencies. A second resolution would have demanded an independent human and civil rights review into the use of the technology.

It followed accusations that the technology has bias and inaccuracies, which critics say can be used to racially discriminate against minorities.

The votes were non-binding, allowing the company to reject the outcome of the vote.

But the vote was almost inevitably set to fail. Following his divorce, Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos retains 12 percent of the company’s stock as well as the voting rights in his ex-wife’s remaining stake. The company’s top four institutional shareholders, including The Vanguard Group, Blackrock, FMR and State Street, collectively hold about the same amount of voting rights as Bezos.

The resolutions failed despite an effort by the ACLU to back the measures, which the civil liberties group accused the tech giant of being “non-responsive” to privacy concerns.

In remarks, Shankar Narayan, ACLU of Washington, said: “The fact that there needed to be a vote on this is an embarrassment for Amazon’s leadership team. It demonstrates shareholders do not have confidence that company executives are properly understanding or addressing the civil and human rights impacts of its role in facilitating pervasive government surveillance.”

“While we have yet to see the exact breakdown of the vote, this shareholder intervention should serve as a wake-up call for the company to reckon with the real harms of face surveillance and to change course,” he said.

The civil liberties group rallied investors ahead of the Wednesday annual meeting in Seattle, where the tech giant has its headquarters. In a letter, the group said the sale of Amazon’s facial recognition tech to government agencies “fundamentally alters the balance of power between government and individuals, arming governments with unprecedented power to track, control, and harm people.”

“As shown by a long history of other surveillance technologies, face surveillance is certain to be disproportionately aimed at immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, activists, and other vulnerable communities,” the letter added.

The ACLU said investors and shareholders had the power “to protect Amazon from its own failed judgment.”

Amazon pushed back against claims that the technology is inaccurate, and called on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to block the shareholder proposal prior to its annual shareholder meeting. The government agency blocked Amazon’s efforts to stop the vote, amid growing scrutiny of its product.

Amazon spokesperson Lauren Lynch said on Tuesday, prior to the meeting, that the company operates “in line with our code of conduct which governs how we run our business and the use of our products.”

An email to the company following Wednesday’s meeting was unreturned at the time of writing.

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