General Intelligence

How a 2018 Research Paper Led Amazon, Microsoft, and IBM to Curb Their Facial Recognition Programs

But it’s just the tip of the facial recognition industry iceberg

Dave Gershgorn
OneZero
Published in
4 min readJun 11, 2020

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Photo illustration. Photo: Ian Waldie/Getty Images

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In February 2018, Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru published a paper that would reverberate through academia and the media, growing louder and more prescient until this Wednesday, when Amazon decided to put a one-year moratorium on police use of its facial recognition technology.

The paper was called “Gender Shades,” and it showed strong statistical evidence that facial recognition from companies investing billions in A.I. research and development, namely Microsoft, IBM, and Face++, performed worse when analyzing women and people with darker skin.

The American Civil Liberties Union picked up on Buolamwini’s research and ran members of Congress through Amazon’s Rekognition system, mismatching 28 of them to mugshots of people who had been arrested. The argument was clear: If members of Congress could be misidentified by facial recognition, their constituents could be, too.

Buolamwini and Inioluwa Deborah Raji continued to push the issue. In 2019, the two published research called “Actionable Auditing,” which put Amazon’s facial recognition under scrutiny for falling behind other tech companies in making its facial recognition work more effectively on women people of color.

This week, however, seemed to be a breaking point. Companies that had previously defended their facial recognition products began to seriously reconsider their efforts. IBM announced that it would no longer offer facial recognition, Amazon said it would pause selling its facial recognition to police for a year, and Microsoft announced Thursday that it would not sell its facial recognition technology to police “until there is a federal law regulating the technology,” the Washington Post reported. Earlier in the week, hundreds of Microsoft employees asked the company’s leadership to reconsider its law enforcement contracts.

The argument was clear: If members of…

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Dave Gershgorn
OneZero

Senior Writer at OneZero covering surveillance, facial recognition, DIY tech, and artificial intelligence. Previously: Qz, PopSci, and NYTimes.