Nuns Among Shareholders Asking Amazon Not to Trade Privacy for Profit

Resolution calls for rights advocates to vet Rekognition

The shareholders are concerned about abuses of facial recognition technology by government agencies. Amazon
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A group of nuns joining forces to take on an all-powerful tech company sounds like the plot of Sister Act 3, but it actually happened in Brooklyn—sort of.

Amazon shareholders representing more than $1.3 billion in assets filed a resolution Thursday asking the company to stop selling its facial-recognition technology, Rekognition, to government agencies until the board of directors consults with rights advocates. Those shareholders include a religious organization, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood, which filed the resolution.

Their proposal says shareholders are concerned Rekognition “poses risk to civil and human rights and shareholder value.” As a result, it recommends the Amazon board work with advocates to evaluate the extent to which Rekognition may violate privacy or civil rights, particularly among people of color, and how Amazon plans to mitigate that risk as well as the extent to which Rekognition may be sold to repressive governments.

The Sisters of St. Joseph is part of a nonprofit group of Roman Catholic institutional investors called the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment.

The use of facial recognition is increasing in public spaces, but there are few laws regulating it, which is in part why there is rising concern over privacy and security. In fact, this is just the latest in a long line of requests, including one from the American Civil Liberties Union, that Congress intervene after Rekognition incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots—and those elected officials were disproportionately people of color.

“We filed this proposal because we are concerned that Amazon has pitched facial recognition technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and piloted its Rekognition with police departments, without fully assessing potential human rights impacts,” Sister Patricia Mahoney said in a statement.

Emails obtained by the ACLU through a Freedom of Information Act request show Amazon has pitched government agencies, and Rekognition has been used by law enforcement in Oregon and Florida.

“The fact that Amazon’s shareholders felt compelled to take this up to the company’s board of directors should be a wake-up call to Amazon’s leadership to take concerns around face surveillance seriously,” the ACLU said in a statement. “It shouldn’t take a board or shareholder intervention for the company to do right by immigrants, people of color, religious minorities, protesters and activists who are disproportionately harmed by such new surveillance technologies.”

The shareholders also point out Rekognition contradicts Amazon’s opposition to facilitating surveillance, and shareholders have little evidence it is “effectively restricting the use of Rekognition to protect privacy and civil rights.”

In a statement, Mary Beth Gallagher, executive director of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, pointed to the potential for targeted surveillance and rights abuses.

“Our proposal encourages Amazon to prohibit future sales of its Rekognition software to government agencies until the company has fully evaluated actual and potential human rights impacts of this technology,” she said.

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.