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Amazon, IBM, And Microsoft Won’t Say Which Police Departments Used Their Facial Recognition Technology

Activists are worried about several key questions that remain unanswered.

Posted on June 12, 2020, at 2:52 p.m. ET

Idris Solomon / Reuters

Demonstrators protest against anti-Black racism in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, in New York City, June 11.

This week, IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft pledged to restrict or eliminate law enforcement’s access to facial recognition technology. Those announcements received lots of accolades, but they left many key questions unanswered. None of the companies disclosed how many police departments used their facial recognition technology — or might be using it currently.

On Monday, IBM said it would stop offering, developing, or researching facial recognition. Amazon followed suit on Wednesday, saying it would impose a one-year moratorium on selling its facial recognition technology, Rekognition, to police. And on Thursday, Microsoft announced that it would not sell facial recognition technology to police departments in the United States, “until we have a national law in place.”

But activists who have been fighting against facial recognition were not satisfied with the announcements. On Thursday, Myaisha Hayes, campaign strategies director for MediaJustice, said in a statement, "We have no doubt that Amazon’s announcement is no more than a political stunt meant to quell widespread momentum and demands for the corporation to stop profiting from our oppression and cut ties with all law enforcement agencies."

Evan Greer, the deputy director of digital rights activist group Fight for the Future, added in a statement, "Amazon needs to end their role in the assault on Black lives. This means ending their surveillance partnerships with over 1,350 police departments, cutting ties with ICE, and joining IBM in ending all research, development, and sale of their facial recognition software. Anything less is unacceptable."

Spokespeople for IBM and Amazon declined to comment.

A spokesperson for Microsoft told BuzzFeed News, “We do not sell our facial recognition technology to US police departments today, and until there is a strong national law grounded in human rights, we will not sell this technology to police departments.”

Several questions remained unsettled after the announcement:

None of the three companies committed to restricting police access to other kinds of software. Microsoft powers the New York Police Department’s Domain Awareness System, which organizes street camera footage, license plate photos, 911 call data, and other police information.

Only IBM said it would halt research into facial recognition. Microsoft and Amazon have not made that commitment.

Microsoft and Amazon both called for national legislation to regulate law enforcement’s use of facial recognition, but gave no further details.

It’s also unclear whether Amazon and Microsoft’s commitments would be binding outside the United States.

A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.