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Amazon’s facial recognition boss wants the feds to hurry up with regulation

Otherwise, AWS CEO Andy Jassy said in 2019, “you’ll have 50 different laws in 50 different states.”

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Jason Del Rey has been a business journalist for 15 years and has covered Amazon, Walmart, and the e-commerce industry for the last decade. He was a senior correspondent at Vox.

Editor’s note, February 2: On Tuesday, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he plans to step down to become executive chair of the company and that longtime executive Andy Jassy will take over as CEO of Amazon later this year. Jassy, a 23-year Amazon veteran who heads the retail giant’s cloud computing business AWS, was interviewed by Recode co-founder Kara Swisher onstage at Recode’s 2019 Code Conference.

This interview offers insights into Jassy’s views on privacy, criticisms surrounding the company’s controversial facial recognition technology, and what role the government should play in regulating technology. That last topic will likely be a focus for Jassy when he starts leading the $1 trillion company — Amazon has recently faced increasing antitrust scrutiny and questions of whether its businesses should be broken up. That scrutiny is expected to continue under a Biden administration.

The interview and the original story, published in June 2019, appear below.

Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy runs a gargantuan business that did nearly $26 billion in revenue last year.

But one of its newest products, the facial recognition software Rekognition, has recently caused outsized controversy for Amazon’s cloud computing unit.

So Jassy says he’d like to see federal regulation that would provide guidance on how the tech should — and shouldn’t — be used.

“I wish they’d hurry up. ... Otherwise, you’ll have 50 different laws in 50 different states,” Jassy told Recode’s Kara Swisher Monday in an interview at the Code Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona.

You can listen to the full interview on Recode Decode with Kara Swisher, which is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and TuneIn.

Amazon’s Rekognition software lets its customers, which include corporations and law enforcement agencies, match photos and videos with databases of photos, such as those of criminals, in real time.

That has led to outrage both inside and outside of Amazon. Hundreds of Amazon employees have called out AWS, along with civil liberties groups and lawmakers, for marketing Rekognition to police, ICE, and other law enforcement agencies, because they fear the powerful technology could be misused.

Case in point: Last summer, the ACLU tested the Rekognition software and found that it incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of people who have committed a crime. The false matches disproportionately involved members of Congress who are people of color. Amazon said the ACLU had used the wrong setting for the software.

Amazon has since outlined proposed ethical guidelines for facial recognition use, and said it supports calls for national legislation related to the technology.

Jassy reiterated that stance on Monday. But he said Amazon would continue selling the software.

“Just because tech could be misused doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it,” he said.

He compared the technology to other things that can be misused: Like email, with a reference to the hack of Sony’s email system several years ago.

And ... a knife.

“You could use a knife in a surreptitious way,” he said.

Amazon employees confronted execs about the technology with questions at an all-staff meeting in the fall. Jassy told them that while he thinks a wide range of opinions on the topic is “great,” the company felt good about the technology and the customers using it.

He reiterated that stance on Monday evening, saying that one of Amazon’s leadership principles is “Have backbone; disagree and commit.”

Translation: We heard your objection, employees. But we disagree.

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