SEC says no to Amazon bid to stop shareholders voting on use of facial recognition system

Proposal seeking to halt sale of Rekognition to US agencies to be heard at annual meeting


The Securities and Exchange Commission has blocked Amazon's efforts to prevent shareholders voting at next month's Annual General Meeting on the sale of its facial recognition tech to the US government.

A group of Amazon's investors called on the business in January to halt the sale of Rekognition to federal agencies unless they can show, "using independent evidence", that it doesn't "cause or contribute to actual or potential violations of civil and human rights".

A second proposal (PDF) then requested an independent report on Rekognition that addresses whether the tech might "endanger, threaten, or violate privacy and or civil rights", how much it is marketed or used by foreign governments, and the financial or operational risks associated.

Amazon attempted to dodge the votes using the SEC's "no action" process, based on rules that exempt firms from allowing votes on certain proposals.

The groups putting forward the resolutions then protested, and after considering the request, the SEC ruled against Amazon on 28 March (PDF). Amazon asked the SEC to reconsider, but its appeal was turned down a second time late last week. (PDF).

"After reviewing the information contained in your correspondence, we find no basis to reconsider our position," said Elizabeth Murphy, associate director at the SEC.

The SEC ruling comes amid mounting evidence suggesting facial recognition tech is inaccurate and biased, and growing concerns about its unregulated use by the US and other governments, with various campaigns urging companies not to sell to the feds.

The group - comprised of shareholders, civil liberty campaigners and academics - are urging other stock owners to unite at the AGM in May.

"We encourage fellow investors to vote in favor of the two resolutions on Rekognition due to the potential human rights impacts of selling facial recognition technology to governments," said Mary Beth Gallagher of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment.

In a statement posted by OpenMIC, a nonprofit organisation that helps investors lobby businesses, Gallagher said that it was in Amazon's best interest to fully assess the risks of its tech and the company's ability to "maintain the trust of its stakeholders". ®

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