Amazon Web Services announced this week that it has made “improvements” to its Rekognition facial analysis software, including the ability to identify “fear” in a subject’s face.
“We have improved accuracy for emotion detection,” the company wrote in a short statement Monday, “and added a new emotion: ‘Fear.’” The addition—launched this week, along with what the company says are upgrades to its gender identification and age estimation capabilities—is likely to exacerbate concerns about the technology, which has been criticized by privacy and civil liberties advocates.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Corey Quinn, cloud economist at the Duckbill Group and author of the Last Week in AWS newsletter, tweeted following the announcement Monday. “AWS comes under fire for Rekognition sales to the federal government, who is in turn building concentration camps for children, and AWS’s response is to improve ‘age range estimation’ and ‘fear detection’ in the service?”
Facial recognition technology is, of course, extremely controversial, particularly when paired with government surveillance. The Chinese government has come under fire for using smart surveillance cameras to track and control its Muslim population. Rekognition, which AWS launched in 2016, has been protested both inside and outside Amazon, particularly since it was revealed the company had pitched its technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The sales pitch, first reported by the Daily Beast and the Project on Government Oversight in October, spurred outrage amid concerns the technology could “supercharge the agency’s enforcement power,” be prone to abuse, and even lead to wrongful arrests.
Earlier this year, a group of concerned researchers sent an open letter to Amazon calling on the company to stop selling Rekognition to law enforcement until “safeguards” are in place to prevent its abuse. Over the summer, AWS employees circulated an email demanding the company cut ties with I.C.E. And at the Amazon Web Services Summit in New York last month, a group of about 30 tech workers, all of whom were women immigrants, interrupted a keynote address by Chief Technology Officer Werner Vogels with recordings of children being separated from their parents by Trump’s I.C.E. “You’re being complicit,” Jamie San Andres, a project coordinator for Make the Road New York, said at the event. “Take a stand against I.C.E.”
That Amazon is expanding the software’s capabilities is only going to heighten those concerns, especially as Jeff Bezos continues to pursue deeper ties to the federal government. “We are going to continue to support the [Department of Defense], and I think we should,” he said in October. “One of the jobs of senior leadership is to make the right decision, even when it’s unpopular.”