Inside The 1% Who Took A Stand

Nineteen concerned shareholders waged war on Amazon’s facial recognition software, Rekognition, in the name of human rights and preserving public trust. Here is an insight into the result of their efforts and how inadvertently we — Amazon’s loyal subjects — allowed this to happen in the first place.

A picture of a woman with black hair and a purple shirt with networks on her face to show facial recognition technology.
Source: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/flat-recognition-facial-face-woman-3252983/

‘THE BOARD RECOMMENDS THAT YOU VOTE “AGAINST” THIS PROPOSAL REQUESTING A BAN ON GOVERNMENT USE OF CERTAIN TECHNOLOGIES.’

Prime, Kindle, Echo and Go. Amazon has marketed the simplicity of these verbs to create its most innovative and market-leading products. The Amazon Ecosystem, as it’s known, gives the gift of convenience with strings attached. However, add Rekognition to the equation, and one starts to wonder when and how a dot-com era online book store evolved into a surveillance and crime software provider.

A simple explanation for this technological development is: ‘beggars can’t be choosers’. David Collingridge labels this as the ‘dilemma of control’, where our attempts to prevent catastrophic unintended consequences either occur at inception or when the technology is too developed. Rekognition refers to the latter.

Therefore, the conscientious 1% of Amazon shareholders act as primary signs of catalysts for change, complimenting public uncertainty, that demonstrates the fine balance required to maintain public privacy and trust while capitalising on innovation and maintaining a competitive edge.

What Is Amazon Rekognition?

If you’re interested in this blog, you’re also likely to be subsumed in the Apple Ecosystem too. Facial recognition is nothing new. Apple first introduced facial recognition on their iPhone X in 2017 to replace the TouchID phone unlocking feature. Similarly, if you’ve ever used an ePassport Gate at the airport, that uses facial recognition to match the photo on your passport with the image of the person scanning the passport. Amazon Rekognition is no different.

This is a Washington Post video explaining the software, its uses and dangers. Important notice on the scrutiny of this video: Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s Founder and CEO, owns the Washington Post.

Facial recognition uses a technology called Artificial Intelligence (AI) which is an automated version of the human brain. It attempts to learn a pattern and, through added data, improve it’s accuracy. Better yet, Amazon’s software goes one step further. It can detect emotion based on facial expressions. The software attempts to encode a profile of a person solely based on their face. Vain, I know.

Amazon has piloted the technology with ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in Florida and Oregon. Facial recognition software is still immature; the chances that law enforcement agencies detain innocent civilians instead of criminals is highly likely. Furthermore, bias is inevitable in the development of any AI and can have dramatic consequences as fears of racial profiling mount. In short, the potential widespread use of this immature technology could limit our agency, squander our freedom and further divide our society.

Who Are The Shareholders?

Amazon reported in its 2019 Annual Statement that it has 2315 shareholders of common stock. Jeff Bezos, its CEO, owns 12% of those shares and Amazon’s top four shareholders own a combined 16%, equitable to Bezos before divorce earlier this year. However, there were nineteen entities, with undisclosed amounts of shares which took the plunge. Below is two tables comparing the Amazon ten largest investors’ interests to those of the nineteen who wrote to Bezos to stop Rekognition’s development.

Author’s Table showing stake per investor and examples of their other investments. Sources: https://www.holdingschannel.com and https://money.cnn.com/quote/shareholders/shareholders.html?symb=AMZN&subView=institutional
Author’s Table depicting the interests of the 19 shareholders who signed the letter to Jeff Bezos. Most are private organisations so their shares are not known, nor their other investments. Information retrieved from respective websites. Categories made by Author. Source: https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/amzn_rekog_shareholder_letter.pdf

What Was The Result Of The Shareholder Meeting?

In total, shareholders voted on twelve resolutions, including wage equity, climate change, food waste and, of course, facial recognition sales to government agencies.

All twelve resolutions failed. However, the one that concerns this blog had two separate proposals.

The first was to ban the software outright and stop its development. Only 2.4% agreed, failing to reach the re-try buffer of 5%.

The second sought to conduct an independent human rights assessment on the software. Fairing slightly better at 27.5%, but still fell short.

Despite evidence shows that influential individuals in charge of innovation are wary of taking steps to limit the dangerous consequences of their work; Amazon has other ideas.

The future led by Amazon now doesn’t seem so bright. Consequently, I see three resultant implications of the shareholders’ efforts beyond the boardroom.

Consumerism Led Us Here

Our yearning for one-day delivery allowed the company to progress towards uncharted territories. As with science, we worship technology and promise it’ll solve the world’s problems. Proponents such as Bill Gates sparked a trend towards idolising the technological fix without wariness of the possible side-effects.

Amazon, with our trust in them, innovated to break into a new industry and maintain its leading market position. Furthermore, the green light given to technology along with a lax regulatory framework epitomises how corporations can experiment and sell technologies that may ultimately compromise the loyal customer base that allowed them to get this far.

Inside-Out Corporate Bureaucracy

The complexity of these transnational corporations is far beyond our purview. The nineteen who shook the boardroom and led Amazon to the front pages are part of ‘activist shareholders’ working from the inside. While we can blog, protest and debate about the effects of Amazon’s (almost) monopoly, money talks.

Activist shareholders gain a seat at the table and leverage their wealth to garner change in the name of the environment, human rights and equity. They help us humanise technology and understand the possible consequences of unrestricted development. In terms of responsible innovation, they are the essential cogs often forgotten amongst civil unrest and corporate legal battles. They can impose indemnity clauses on their investments to pressure corporations to comply with their requests.

In the case of Amazon, these shareholders don’t have enough shares to warrant an overhaul. However, in the future, given the implementation of EU Directives on responsible investment companies will be forced to conduct technological innovation under a microscope.

Although I slightly allude to it here, one actor we miss in this discussion is the state. While I won’t entertain this branch of the argument for too long, their role in Amazon’s use is apparent. As long as the state encourages the development of possibly harmful technologies, we are nowhere closer to creating specific securities to protect citizens from the probable unanticipated consequences of their development.

I firmly believe, however, that the combined power of the state and activist shareholders, as pinch-points, could lie the secret to getting policy ahead of innovation.

Negligence or Recklessness?

A last point to make is about the future. Let’s assume that Amazon was negligent in its development of Rekognition. Now, they are aware of the concerns, despite their insistence that nothing sinister will come of it. But what does it mean if something does happen?

It places Amazon in the ‘recklessness’ category. Full well knowing and entertaining the dangers of facial recognition in racial profiling and state-wide control of populations yet still selling it to government agencies around the globe.

The fact that nothing has been said further about Amazon’s Rekognition software begs the question about what can we do. Do we accept the inevitability of facial recognition? Are we powerless in this fight to maintain our civil liberties? As cliche as it may be, only time will tell. However, I’m sure that there will be a tipping point in which action is taken, it remains to be seen how far down the rabbit hole we will be by then.

A Final Word

Although the road ahead is unclear, the resolve shown already by activist shareholders highlights genuine promise moving forward. It signals a possible mindset shift away from government regulation that stifles development and towards a capitalist strategy that invests, not exploits the consumer.

Joint PhD Candidate Business & Management at Manchester & Melbourne| MSc UCL Science, Technology and Society | BA (Hons) QMUL Human Geography |