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Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM Will Temporarily Stop Selling Facial Recognition Technology to Law Enforcement

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  • After increased calls for tech companies to stop selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement, Amazon pledged to stop for one year.
  • Microsoft promised to stop until there is federal legislation, and IBM said it will stop entirely.
  • Numerous studies have found that facial recognition programs disproportionately misidentify people of color, which could lead to false arrests. Others are concerned police are using the technology to identify and arrest protestors, as they have in the past.
  • Facial recognition is entirely unregulated at the federal level, and all three companies pushed for national legislation.

The Problem With Facial Recognition

IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft have all said they will stop selling facial recognition technology to law enforcement— at least temporarily.

Over the last few years, government agencies and law enforcement have significantly increased their use of facial recognition technology, which is almost entirely unregulated, to track down criminals, terrorists, and illegal immigrants.

One 2016 study by the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law that combined FBI data with information about state and local systems found that facial recognition systems used by law enforcement impacts over 117 million American adults, meaning that “one in two American adults is in a law enforcement face recognition network.”

While the use of facial recognition is something that both activists and privacy advocates have criticized for years, the recent protests and calls for changes in policing have placed renewed pressure on tech companies to stop selling these tools to law enforcement agencies.

There are two overarching arguments made by those who oppose the use of facial recognition by law enforcement.

The first is the argument that the law enforcement system is structurally racist, and any policing tool utilized by that system will undoubtedly be used to target Black and brown people— as all policing tools are.

The second argument is that numerous studies have found that the existing facial recognition technology is far more likely to misidentify women and people of color, which means the systems will lead to more wrongful arrests if used by police. 

The reason for this fundamental flaw is due to the fact that the data used to build the facial recognition software are often largely made up of pictures of white men, which makes racial bias ingrained in the systems.

For example, one federal report released at the end of last year found that Asian and Black individuals were up to 100 times more likely to be misidentified by facial recognition software than white men.

When it comes to the protests, there are also very serious concerns that facial recognition is being used to identify Black Lives Matter protestors— which is something they have done before.

During the protests over the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died in the custody of police in Baltimore in 2015, the Baltimore Police Department used facial recognition technology to identify protestors, try to link them up with their social media profiles, and then target them for arrest.

What Are They Doing Now?

But despite all of that, tech companies continued to sell facial recognition technology to the police and other law enforcement agencies for years, which is why these decisions by some of the three largest tech companies in the world are significant.

IBM was the first to make its announcement last Monday, and also made the most permanent commitment.

“IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software,” CEO Arvind Krishna wrote in a letter to members of Congress. “IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms.”

Two days later Amazon announced in a statement that it was: “implementing a one-year moratorium on police use of Amazon’s facial recognition technology.”

“We’ve advocated that governments should put in place stronger regulations to govern the ethical use of facial recognition technology, and in recent days, Congress appears ready to take on this challenge,” the statement continued. “We hope this one-year moratorium might give Congress enough time to implement appropriate rules, and we stand ready to help if requested.”

Amazon’s commitment here is especially notable because the company’s facial recognition technology has been arguable the most heavily criticized of the three. 

A 2018 test conducted by the ACLU found that Amazon’s software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of people who had committed crimes. In 2019, one study found that Amazon’s system had more difficulty identifying women and darker-skinned faces than IBM and Microsoft’s technology.

As for Microsoft, their announcement was made by the company’s president, Brad Smith, in an interview with the Washington Post on Thursday.

“We will not sell facial-recognition technology to police departments in the United States until we have a national law in place, grounded in human rights, that will govern this technology,” Smith said, noting that Microsoft has not sold the technology to police departments in the past.

Where the Plans Fall Short

While many have applauded the moves these three companies made, others have noted that there are a lot of places where their plans fall short.

For example, while Microsoft and Amazon have not said if they will stop selling the technology to other government agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Amazon has also faced extra scrutiny over its decision to limit selling their products to the police to just one year, as many have pointed out that it is unlikely we will have comprehensive national legislation by then.

Others have also noted that Amazon has not said what will happen to the police departments its already sold their facial recognition system to, which is significant because, in February, the head of Amazon Web Services said that the company doesn’t know how many police forces had bought their technology.

Even beyond that, numerous activists have called for the technology to be banned at the federal level, full stop. But regardless of a full ban or just more regulation, it is clear that these three companies believe that there needs to be a framework at the national level.

Especially because, as Smith pointed out, smaller companies will likely rush in and fill the space that these big companies are leaving by stepping out of the law-enforcement market— even if just temporarily.

“If all of the responsible companies in the country cede this market to those that are not prepared to take a stand, we won’t necessarily serve the national interest or the lives of the Black and African-American people of this nation well,” he said. “We need Congress to act, not just tech companies alone.”

But whether or not that will happen anytime soon remains unclear. According to reports, right now there are at least a dozen bills in Congress that address facial recognition either directly or indirectly as part of a larger proposal, though most have bee deprioritized.

There have been a number of efforts at the state and local level, but even those are up in the air, and without a holistic, national framework, not a lot can be expected to change.

See what others are saying: (Business Insider) (CNN) (The Washington Post)

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Amazon Backs GOP Bill to Legalize Marijuana in Effort to Ramp Up Lobbying

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The proposal is the first Republican-sponsored marijuana bill Amazon has backed since the company first began lobbying for legalization last summer.


Amazon Endorses States Reform Act

Amazon announced Tuesday that it is endorsing a Republican-backed proposal to legalize marijuana.

The move comes as the e-commerce giant has ramped up its efforts to legalize cannabis on the federal level since it came out in support of the idea last summer. Amazon argues that the move would remove hiring barriers — which disproportionately impact people of color — and, in turn, could increase the company’s application pool and boost employee retention.

The company has previously backed similar proposals by forward by Democrats, but Tuesday’s announcement marks the first time Amazon has put its support behind a Republican-sponsored bill aimed at addressing the issue.

The legislation, called the States Reform Act, was authored by Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.). Among other measures, it would remove cannabis as a Schedule I substance, allow states to create their own laws, impose an excise tax, and regulate the drug in a similar fashion to alcohol.

While Mace’s bill is fundamentally very similar to others put forth by Democrats, by proposing it herself, the Republican hopes to rally other members of her party around the idea that legalization is pro-business, pro-state’s rights, and anti-big government.

The measure has already received support from the highly influential conservative group, American’s for Prosperity, which is funded by the Koch brothers.

Potential Momentum

Mace and Amazon have painted the company’s endorsement as a game-changer for garnering more support — both from other large corporations and politicians on either side of the aisle. Mace specifically told reporters she believes Amazon’s decision will push other companies to do the same. If more major corporations like Amazon back the effort, other Republicans may be more persuaded to jump on board.

That sentiment was echoed by Brian Huseman, Amazon’s vice president of public policy, who said in an interview with The Washington Post that the company was “particularly excited by Congresswoman Mace’s bill because it shows that there’s bipartisan support for this issue.”

Huseman also emphasized that, as part of its decision to back her bill, Amazon will use its powerful influence in Washington to try and drum up bipartisan support.

“We are talking with members of both parties, including Republicans, about why we think this is the right thing to do, especially from the standpoint of a major employer and what this means for our business and our employees and broadening the employee base,” he continued.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Forbes) (Marijuana Moment)

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CDC Data Shows Booster Shots Provide Effective Protection Against Omicron

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Public health experts have encouraged Americans to get boosted to protect themselves against the omicron variant, but less than 40% of fully vaccinated people who are eligible for their third shot have received it.


A First Glimpse of Official Data on Boosters and Omicron

COVID-19 booster shots are effective at preventing Americans from contracting omicron and protecting those who do become infected from severe illness, according to three reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published Friday.

The reports mark the first real-world data regarding the highly infectious variant and how it has impacted the U.S.

One of the CDC reports, which studied data from 25 state and local health departments, found that there were 149 cases per 100,000 people among those had been boosted on average each week. 

In comparison, the figure was 255 cases per 100,000 people in Americans who had only received two shots.

Another study that looked at nearly 88,000 hospitalizations in 10 states found that the third doses were 90% effective at preventing hospitalization. 

By contrast, those who received just two shots were only 57% protected against hospitalization by the time they were eligible for a booster six months after their second dose.

Additionally, the same report also found that the boosters were 82% effective at preventing visits to emergency rooms and urgent care centers, a marked increase from the 38% efficacy for those who were six months out from their two-shot regime and had not yet received a third.

Low Booster Shot Vaccination Rates

Public health officials hope that the new data will urge more Americans to get their booster shots.

Since the emergence of omicron, experts and leading political figures have renewed their efforts to encourage people to get their third shots, arguing they are the best form of protection. 

The CDC currently recommends that everyone 12 and older get a booster shot five months after their second shot of Pfizer and Moderna or two months after receiving the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Still, in the U.S., less than 40% of fully vaccinated individuals eligible for a third shot have gotten one.

While COVID cases in the country have begun to drop over the past several days from their peak of over 800,000 average daily infections, the figures are still nearly triple those seen in the largest previous surges.

Hospitalizations have also slowly begun to level out over the last week in places that were hit first, such as New York City and Boston, but medical resources still remain strained in many parts of the country that experienced later surges and have not yet seen cases slow.

Some experts predict that the U.S. will see a sharp decline in omicron cases, as experienced in South Africa and Britain. Still, they urge American’s to get boosted to ensure their continued protection from the variant, as well as other strains that will emerge.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (CNN) (The New York Times)

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California Bill Would Allow Kids 12 and Up to Get Vaccinated Without Parental Consent

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Nearly one million California teens and preteens between the ages of 12 and 17 are not vaccinated against COVID-19. 


State Senator Proposes Legislation

Legislation proposed in California on Thursday would allow children age 12 and up to get vaccinated without parental consent. 

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) introduced Bill 866 in the hope it could boost vaccination rates among teenagers. According to Wiener, nearly one million kids aged 12- to 17-years old remain unvaccinated against COVID-19 in the state of California. 

“Unvaccinated teens are at risk, put others at risk & make schools less safe,” Wiener tweeted. “They often can’t work, participate in sports, or go to friends’ homes.”

“Many want to get vaccinated but parents won’t let them or aren’t making the time to take them. Teens shouldn’t have to rely on parents’ views & availability to protect themselves from a deadly virus.”

Currently, teens in California can receive vaccines for human papillomavirus and hepatitis B without parental consent. They can also make other reproductive or mental healthcare choices without a guardian signing off. Wiener argues that their medical autonomy should expand to all vaccines, especially during a pandemic that has already killed roughly 78,000 Californians. 

Vaccine Consent Across the U.S.

“Teens shouldn’t have to plot, scheme or fight with their parents to get a vaccine,” he said. “They should simply be able to walk in & get vaccinated like anyone else.”

Bill 866 would allow any kids ages 12 and up to receive any vaccine approved or granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration and recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Currently, Pfizer’s COVID vaccine has been fully approved by the FDA for those 16 and older. It has received emergency authorization for ages five through 15. 

Across the United States, vaccine consent ages vary. While the vast majority of states require parental approval for minors to be vaccinated against COVID-19, kids as young as 11 can get the jab on their own in Washington, D.C. In Alabama, kids can receive it without parental consent at 14, in Oregon at 15, and in Rhode Island and South Carolina at 16. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, providers can waive consent in certain cases in Arkansas, Idaho, Washington, and Tennesee.

In October, California became the first state to announce plans to require that students receive the COVID-19 vaccine to attend class. The mandate has yet to take effect, but under the guidelines, students will be “required to be vaccinated for in person learning starting the term following FDA full approval of the vaccine for their grade span.” 

In other words, once the FDA gives a vaccine full approval for those aged 12 and up, it will be required the following session for kids in grades 7-12. Once it does so for kids as young as five, the same process will happen for children in kindergarten through sixth grade. There will also be room for exemptions from the mandate. 

The Fight to Vaccinate California

This week, a group of California state legislators formed a Vaccine Work Group in order to boost public health policies in the state. Wiener is among the several members who are “examining data, hearing from experts, and engaging stakeholders to determine the best approaches to promote vaccines that have been proven to reduce serious illness, hospitalization and death from COVID-19.”

“Vaccines protect not only individuals but also whole communities when almost everyone is vaccinated at schools, workplaces and businesses, and safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines have already prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans,” Sen. Dr. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) said in a press release. “Public safety is a paramount duty of government, and I am proud to join a talented group of legislators in the pro-science Vaccine Work Group who want to end this disastrous pandemic and protect Californians from death and disability by preventable diseases.”

While vaccine policies have been a divisive subject nationwide, including in California, state politicians and leaders are hopeful public health initiatives will prevail. 

“If we allow disinformation to drive our state policy making we will not only see more Americans needlessly suffer and die, but we will sacrifice the long term stability of our society having effectively abandoned the idea that we all must work together to protect each other in times of crisis.” Catherine Flores Martin, the Executive Director of the California Immunization Coalition, added. 

See what others are saying: (Los Angeles Times) (NBC News) (Sacramento Bee)

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