Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft have announced that they will not sell facial recognition products to U.S. police departments as protests over the killing of George Floyd continue across the country. While the details and terms of their commitments differ — Amazon and Microsoft agreed to temporary halts, while IBM will exit facial recognition sales entirely — all three companies called for regulation of the technology from Washington, D.C.
In Congress, a number of bills have been proposed to address facial recognition bias and potential misuse by law enforcement agencies, but the most advanced conversations about facial recognition regulation to date have taken place in the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
There, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers excoriated the FBI for its facial recognition program’s lack of standards, and lawmakers from both parties agreed that facial recognition shouldn’t be used to chill the First Amendment right to free speech at protests or political rallies. There also seemed to be bipartisan agreement that businesses and law enforcement agencies need guardrails around their use of this technology.
Hearings on the subject started in May 2019, and committee chair Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) pledged in January to introduce legislation shortly. Now lawmakers in Congress are considering legislation that could include a temporary facial recognition moratorium for law enforcement agencies.
Part of the committee’s work on facial recognition sprouts from leadership by former Rep. Elijah Cummings, who passed away last fall but whose efforts were spurred by protests in his Baltimore district following the death of Freddie Gray.
Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) from Los Angeles serves as the committee vice-chair and became interested in algorithmic bias after seeing a SXSW tech panel in 2017 about a lack of diversity in tech leading to inherently biased systems. But what really shook Gomez into action, he said, was being labeled a criminal by Amazon’s Rekognition in a test by the ACLU in 2018. At the time, Rekognition was roughly twice as likely to label a member of Congress a criminal if they were a person of color rather than white.
Gomez spoke with VentureBeat this week about next steps for facial recognition regulation in Congress, difficulties he and his staff have encountered trying to get answers from Amazon, and the impact on facial recognition regulation of protests in thousands of cities across the nation since the death of George Floyd.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
VentureBeat: What are your thoughts on the news this week from IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft?
Rep. Jimmy Gomez: Great, we need so much more from them. Is it a true awakening or understanding that they have to change? I want it to lead to real change in how they do business, to legislative change at the Congressional level, but they still have a lot of questions to answer about what they did this week and how they [can] play a productive role with other stakeholders coming up with some solutions to this problem.
VentureBeat: So what happens next?
Gomez: If facial recognition is considered the future of policing, it’s just going to perpetuate the same biases that are already out there because it’s in and of itself is biased. It’s been flawed. It’s been shown to be flawed and can [misidentify] people of color, mainly black women, Latinos, African Americans — and the darker the skin color, the more mistakes it makes. That’s going to lead to more negative interactions between law enforcement and people of color, which can lead to deadly consequences.
I was always concerned about that, but if it wasn’t for these protests, if it wasn’t for this raising of awareness, we couldn’t get legislation introduced. So I’m pushing to get some legislation [passed] that the Oversight and Reform Committee has been working on for the last several years. It was a moratorium bill, it was going to be bipartisan, and I’m going to push for it to be longer than a year to give Congress real time to get something done.
We had three hearings, and [chair] Carolyn Maloney at the beginning of the year announced that the Oversight committee would mark up that bill and move it to the floor before the end of the year, so that’s still my goal. The committee is working in haste right now to get that done, and I think these companies announcing that they’re going to do a moratorium and pull back on [the technology’s] uses is hopefully creating more momentum. We still have to deal with the Republicans, and I hope we can get them on board, but either way, I think the Democrats should move that piece of legislation forward.
VentureBeat: Beyond issues like a moratorium, it seemed like there was some amount of bipartisan agreement on some essential issues, like no facial recognition at political rallies, protections against facial recognition use by police at protests, [and] some essential standards for the FBI facial recognition use. It seemed like there was agreement on a lot of that stuff.
Gomez: There was an agreement that it was a problem. There was consensus that the use of facial recognition in these settings was a problem and that we should take steps to do something about it. And as we were getting going, coronavirus hit and it got pushed to the back burner because coronavirus legislation had to pass. But we still need to find consensus on the legislative solution to deal with those problems.
We’ve got to actually accomplish something with that [legislation]. And that’s why we’re having those discussions with Republicans as we speak to do that. In my mind, if Republicans seem to be moving too slow, we should look at doing a Democratic-only bill, in my opinion.
VentureBeat: In that sense, you specifically mean a moratorium?
Gomez: Maybe even a little bit more broadly and a little bit more robust, with a lot of things that you just mentioned. And the reason why is we have the momentum right now, and we can’t let it go.
Does it make it harder to pass the Senate? Yes. But it sets up a better marker for a Democratic president and hopefully a Democratic Senate. So it’s not just one or the other, in my opinion.
VentureBeat: In your opinion, has the definition of what common sense facial recognition regulation looks like — has that changed since the death of George Floyd in the last few weeks?
Gomez: I hope so. I always had concern about the use of facial recognition in the hands of law enforcement because there are more mistakes with people of color that are going to have them being pulled over by the cops and even more deadly consequences, and that was always in the back of my mind.
If you look at some of my testimony, I actually gave a scenario about somebody who’s stopped by the police, who’s confused with somebody who has a felony, and for people of color that situation is nerve-wracking, right? It’s scary. And people of color also know that African American men and Latinos are more likely to experience violence at the hands of a police officer and stuff like that. So it’s something that’s always been at the forefront of my thoughts. I hope that other members — because of the death of George Floyd and the talk about disparity and racial bias, prejudice, and racism — now understand why this issue has been such a big deal for me and other people of color who are members [of Congress] who were misidentified by Amazon’s Rekognition technology.
Because honestly, I feel like in the beginning people thought I was overblowing it. It felt like some people thought I was making a big deal out of it, and it’s not a big deal until you’re the one whose photo is matched with somebody who has a mug shot. So I hope that non-minority members of Congress now get a better sense of why we care so deeply about this issue.
VentureBeat: Can you tell me about your history of trying to ask Amazon questions about facial recognition software?
Gomez: I think my staff met with them like 10 times, but it was always going in circles without really answering the questions that we had in our letters.
When we got into the majority [in 2018], I reached out to [Rep.] Jamie Raskin [D-MD] and said, “Hey, we should have a hearing on facial recognition.” I approached Elijah Cummings, the chair at the time, and said, “Hey, this is a big deal. We should have hearings on it when it first happened.”
So as we started doing it more and more, Elijah Cummings was really into it, and we started having hearings and started making some progress. Then he passed away and we lost that momentum. When Carolyn Maloney took over, I basically said that this was a top priority of mine, and she committed to having the hearing. And that’s when she committed to moving a bill forward and marking it up by the end of the year. That’s when she asked me to be part of her team, and I ran for vice-chair. So this is an issue that we’ve been slowly beating the drum about, but Amazon was not as forthcoming as I felt that they should have been.
I think for them [tech giants] in the current environment, they had to make a move and do something that would be more than just platitudes and show that they’re taking seriously the role of companies when creating a more just society, a just country, a fairer country. And I think that they knew that this issue of facial recognition was going to come up, so they gave this moratorium, but if the moratorium isn’t backed up by cooperation, it’s just platitudes.
We need them to cooperate and give us data so we can be better informed on how to craft this legislation. If not, we’ll just work with the civil rights groups, and we’ll just try to pass it through, and they’re going to most likely try to oppose it, in my opinion, at the end of the day if they don’t like it. But we’re going to try and push something that’s meaningful. I believe in having stakeholders at the table, everybody from law enforcement to civil rights groups to advocates and companies developing this technology. But if they’re not at the table, it doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop.