All the big companies, from Facebook, Amazon, and Google through to Apple, Microsoft, and Uber, are competing on multiple business fronts, with AI a common thread permeating it all. There has been a concerted push to vacuum up all the best AI talent, either through acquiring startups or simply hiring the top minds from the best universities. And then there is the issue of securing big-name clients with big dollars to spend — Amazon and Microsoft are currently locking horns to win a $10 billion Pentagon contract for delivering AI and cloud services.
In the midst of all this, tech firms are facing increasing pressure over their provision of facial recognition services (FRS) to the government and law enforcement. Back in January, a coalition of more than 85 advocacy groups penned an open letter to Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, urging them to cease selling facial recognition software to authorities — before it’s too late.
“Companies can’t continue to pretend that the ‘break then fix’ approach works,” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of California. “History has clearly taught us that the government will exploit technologies like face surveillance to target communities of color, religious minorities, and immigrants. We are at a crossroads with face surveillance, and the choices made by these companies now will determine whether the next generation will have to fear being tracked by the government for attending a protest, going to their place of worship, or simply living their lives.”
Then in April, two dozen AI researchers working across the technology and academia sphere called on Amazon specifically to stop selling its Rekognition facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies. The crux of the problem, according to the researchers, was that there isn’t sufficient regulation to control how the technology is used.
Above: An illustration shows Amazon Rekognition’s support for detecting faces in crowds.
Image Credit: Amazon
“We call on Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to law enforcement as legislation and safeguards to prevent misuse are not in place,” it said. “There are no laws or required standards to ensure that Rekognition is used in a manner that does not infringe on civil liberties.”
However, Amazon later went on record to say that it would serve any federal government with facial recognition technology — so long as it’s legal.
These controversies are not limited to the U.S. either — it’s a global problem that countries and companies everywhere are having to tackle. London’s King’s Cross railway station hit the headlines in August when it was found to have deployed facial recognition technology in CCTV security cameras, leading to questions not only ethics, but also legality. A separate report published also discovered that local police had submitted photos of seven people for use in conjunction with King’s Cross’s facial recognition system, in a deal that was not disclosed until yesterday.
All these examples serve to feed the argument that AI development is outpacing society’s ability to put adequate checks and balances in place.


Digital technology has often moved too fast for regulation or external oversight to keep up, but we’re now starting to see major regulatory pushbacks — particularly relating to data privacy. The California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which is due to take effect on Jan 1, 2020, is designed to enhance privacy rights of consumers living across the state, while Europe is also currently weighing a new ePrivacy Regulation, which covers an individual’s right to privacy regarding electronic communications.
But the biggest regulatory advance in recent times has been Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which stipulates all manner of rules around how companies should manage and protect their customers’ data. Huge fines await any company that contravenes GDPR, as Google found out earlier this year when it was hit with a €50 million ($57 million) fine by French data privacy body CNIL for “lack of transparency” over how it personalized ads. Elsewhere, British Airways (BA) and hotel giant Marriott were slapped with $230 million and $123 million fines respectively over gargantuan data breaches. Such fines may serve as incentives for companies to better manage data in the future, but in some respects the regulations we’re starting to see now are too little too late — the privacy ship has sailed.
“Rolling back is a really difficult thing to do — we’ve seen it around the whole data protection field of regulation, where technology moves much faster than regulation can move,” Kind said. “All these companies went ahead and started doing all these practices; now we have things like the GDPR trying to pull some of that back, and it’s very difficult.”
From looking back at the past 15 years or so, a time during which cloud computing and ubiquitous computing have taken hold, there are perhaps lessons to be learned in terms of how society proceeds with AI research, development, and deployment.
“Let’s slow things down a bit before we roll out some of this stuff, so that we do actually understand the societal impacts before we forge ahead,” Kind continued. “I think what’s at stake is so vast.”