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Amazon Facial Recognition Moratorium

SEATTLE — Amazon said on Wednesday that it was putting a one-year pause on letting the police use its facial recognition tool, in a major sign of the growing concerns that the technology may lead to unfair treatment of African-Americans.

The technology giant did not explain its reasoning in its brief blog post about the change, but the move came amid the nationwide protests over racism and biased policing. Amazon’s technology had been criticized in the past for misidentifying people of color.

In its blog post, the company said it hoped the moratorium on its service, Rekognition, “might give Congress enough time to put in place appropriate rules” for the ethical use of facial recognition.

The announcement was a striking change for Amazon, a prominent supplier of facial recognition software to law enforcement. More than other big technology companies, Amazon has resisted calls to slow its deployment. In the past, Amazon had said its tools were accurate but were improperly used by researchers.

On Monday, IBM said it would stop selling facial recognition products, and last year, the leading maker of police body cameras banned the use of facial recognition on its products at the recommendation of its independent ethics board, which said the technology “is not currently reliable enough to ethically justify its use.” Google has advocated a temporary ban on the technology.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded Amazon in a statement for “finally recognizing the dangers face recognition poses to Black and Brown communities and civil rights more broadly.” But it said that the company should extend the moratorium on law enforcement use of its system until Congress passed a law regulating the technology.

“Face recognition technology gives governments the unprecedented power to spy on us wherever we go,” Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director for the A.C.L.U. of Northern California, said in the statement. “It fuels police abuse. This surveillance technology must be stopped.”

Law enforcement agencies use facial recognition technology to identify suspects and missing children. The systems work by trying to match facial pattern data extracted from photos or video with those in databases like driver’s license records. The authorities used the technology to help identify the suspect in the mass shooting at a newspaper last year in Annapolis, Md.

But civil liberties groups have warned that the technology can be used at a distance to secretly identify individuals — such as protesters attending demonstrations — potentially chilling Americans’ right to free speech or simply limiting their ability to go about their business anonymously in public. Some cities, including San Francisco, and Cambridge, Mass., have passed bans on the technology.

This week, Democrats in the House introduced a police reform law that would ban the use of facial recognition technology with police recording equipment. Some lawmakers have long worried about the technology, questioning manufacturers and the public agencies that use their products on how it affects civil rights and privacy.

Civil liberties advocates began a campaign to ban the use of facial recognition by law enforcement in 2018, after a report by academic researchers found racial bias in the systems. The report found that facial technologies made by IBM and Microsoft were able to correctly identify the gender of white men in photographs about 100 percent of the time. But the systems were much less accurate in their ability to identify the gender of darker-skinned women.

IBM and Microsoft quickly improved their systems. Amazon found itself under heightened scrutiny.

For the past two years, the A.C.L.U. has led a campaign to push Amazon to stop selling the technology to law enforcement agencies. The group obtained documents, using open information laws, from police departments that showed how Amazon was aggressively marketing its technology to law enforcement.

The A.C.L.U. also tested Amazon’s technology using the head shots of members of Congress and comparing them against a database of publicly available mug shots. The group reported that the Amazon technology incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with people who had been arrested, amounting to a 5 percent error rate among legislators. At the time, Amazon disputed the findings, saying that the group had used its system differently than law enforcement customers did.

Rep. Jimmy Gomez, a California Democrat and one of the lawmakers misidentified in the A.C.L.U. test, said he met with Amazon about the issue almost a dozen times. He said Amazon was less open to criticism than its tech peers.

“They were avoiding taking any responsibility for their technology in my opinion,” Mr. Gomez said on Wednesday after the company’s announcement. “They always had some excuse.”

Mr. Gomez, who is vice chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, said he was glad to see Amazon halt police sales.

“Amazon can sense that the American people don’t want platitudes when it comes to dealing with disparities right now,” he said. “They want concrete action.”

Amazon introduced Rekognition in 2016 as a low-cost, “highly scalable” way to identify images, including people, in vast databases. Soon after, it began pitching the police on the tool to help investigations, and law enforcement agencies began adopting the technology.

In an interview on the PBS show “Frontline” earlier this year, Andy Jassy, the chief executive of Amazon Web Services, said he did not think the company knew how many police departments were deploying the technology.

Last fall, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, said the company was drafting privacy legislation for facial recognition. But he indicated that Amazon would continue selling the tools in the meantime.

“It’s a perfect example of something that has really positive uses, so you don’t want to put the brakes on it,” Mr. Bezos said. “At the same time, there is lots of potential for abuses with that kind of technology, so you want regulations.”

He said he would welcome “good regulations” on the issue. “That kind of stability I think would be healthy for the whole industry,” he said.

Mr. Bezos did not provide details for what the company’s proposed legislation would entail.

Mr. Gomez said he had not seen any model legislation proposed by Amazon, adding, “That would have been news to me.”

Karen Weise reported from Seattle, and Natasha Singer from New York. David McCabe contributed reporting from Washington.

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Ginni Rometty to Step Down as C.E.O. of IBM

Ginni Rometty, the longtime face of IBM and one of the country’s most prominent female business leaders, is stepping down as chief executive, the company said on Thursday.

Ms. Rometty, who became chief executive in 2012, struggled to achieve growth at the technology giant as it made the transition to new fields like cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

She will be replaced in April by Arvind Krishna, who now runs the company’s cloud computing business.

The timing of the departure of Ms. Rometty, 62, came as a surprise, made after the close of the market on Thursday in a lengthy statement filled with praise from IBM’s board. She will remain as executive chairwoman of the board until the end of the year.

Ms. Rometty was one of the top women executives in the corporate world, a frequent speaker at conferences, and liked and admired by her chief executive peers.

Her assessments of the challenges facing IBM, an old-line technology company making a difficult transition, were cleareyed and candid. In an interview in 2014, for example, she said the next couple of years would be a “rocky time” for IBM.

But the failure to reach the crossover point — when the new businesses like cloud computing, data analytics and artificial intelligence grew faster than older hardware, software and services business — frustrated Wall Street. During her tenure, IBM’s stock price slipped even as the stock market in general rose sharply.

Shares in the company rose more than 4 percent in after-hours trading.

Yet even Wall Street analysts who were often critical of IBM’s performance during her leadership acknowledged that she had inherited key challenges. IBM, they note, was slow to adapt to cloud computing — computing tasks done on remote computers, owned by others. The leaders have been Amazon and Microsoft, and Google is pushing hard to capture that corporate business as well.

“She came in at a particularly tough time, and that challenge was handed to her,” said Toni Sacconaghi, an analyst at Bernstein Research.

In August 2019, IBM bought Red Hat, the largest distributor of the popular open-source operating system Linux, for $34 billion. At the time, many analysts said that the deal meant that Ms. Rometty would probably stay on until the end of this year. But her two predecessors, Samuel J. Palmisano and Louis V. Gerstner Jr., both retired at 60.

The acquisition of Red Hat seems to be going well, analysts said. James Whitehurst, the chief executive of Red Hat, was named the president of IBM on Thursday.

Last week, IBM reported a slight increase in revenue. “This positions us for sustained revenue growth in 2020,” Ms. Rometty said at the time.

Other than Red Hat, IBM acquired 65 companies under Ms. Rometty, mostly small ones. And she sold off companies that accounted for $9 billion in yearly revenue, including semiconductor manufacturing and several lower-profit services and software businesses.

“It’s been her eight-year project to reposition the company,” said Frank Gens, chief analyst of IDC, a technology research firm. “And after the positive report last quarter, she’s declared victory and retired.”

At the time the announcement was made, Ms. Rometty was addressing IBM’s top 300 managers at an annual company leadership conference in downtown Manhattan. She told the assembled executives about the change and shared the stage with Mr. Krishna and Mr. Whitehurst. The three received a lengthy standing ovation, said an IBM manager who attended but was not authorized to speak about the private event.

IBM said the transition was the culmination of a lengthy succession process that began almost a year ago, with Ms. Rometty collaborating closely with the rest of the IBM board.

Ms. Rometty was a computer science major at Northwestern University, where she was also a sorority president. But much of her nearly 40 years at IBM was spent in sales and building up IBM’s big technology services business.

In tapping Mr. Krishna and Mr. Whitehurst, the company decided that the time had come for a seasoned technologist and an operating expert. Mr. Krishna, 57, had been senior vice president for IBM’s cloud and cognitive software, which includes its Watson artificial intelligence technology.

Since he joined IBM in 1990, Mr. Krishna held a series of research and business management roles. He holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Arvind is the right C.E.O. for the next era at IBM.,” Ms. Rometty said in the statement on Thursday.

Mr. Whitehurst, 52, came to IBM with the acquisition of Red Hat, which he joined in 2007. Under his leadership, Red Hat’s revenue increased eightfold and its stock market valuation surged tenfold.

Before Red Hat, Mr. Whitehurst was chief operating officer of Delta Air Lines, leading it out of its bankruptcy restructuring. A former partner at the Boston Consulting Group, Mr. Whitehurst earned his undergraduate degree in economics and computer science from Rice University, and he holds an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School.

In recent years, IBM has not had a separate president. And given their ages and backgrounds, Mr. Krishna is seen as a transitional chief executive, with Mr. Whitehurst positioned to take over in a few years and perhaps become a longer-term leader, said Mr. Gens and Mr. Sacconaghi.

Only 33 women hold chief executive positions at Fortune 500 companies, according to Catalyst, a nonprofit organization that works closely with women chief executives in an effort to improve workplace conditions for women. That number is still only 7 percent of the total, but it has steadily risen over the past two decades.

“We will have one less at the end of the year, but we now have a much broader pipeline, and hopefully, that number will continue to grow,” said Catalyst’s president and chief executive, Lorraine Hariton.

Ms. Hariton said that Mr. Rometty’s departure should not be viewed as anything larger than a chief executive stepping down. “We should just see it as normal to have succession. Period,” she said.

IBM is a company that has long provided ample opportunities for women, said Ms. Hariton, who, like Ms. Rometty, was an IBM employee as far back as the early 80s. “This is a very progressive company,” she said. “Women leaders have been commonplace.”

Cade Metz contributed reporting.