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Civil rights groups ask the FTC to stop Amazon surveillance

Ring presents potential facial recognition nightmare, say critics

A collection of 48 civil rights groups has written to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) asking it to clamp down on corporate surveillance, focusing on Amazon as an example of bad practice. 

The letter calls for the FTC to ban corporate use of facial recognition technology and continuous surveillance in public places. It asked the Commission to make rules to stop the corporate sharing of such data and warned of potential discrimination if surveillance information was used irresponsibly. 

The letter called out the e-commerce giant for privacy and security infractions in several products and services. These include Alexa, its Ring connected cameras, and its recently announced Sidewalk service, which connects an owner's Amazon devices with other peoples' devices on an opt-out basis

"Though many companies sell connected devices, Amazon provides a perfect case study on how monopolistic power compounds unfair practices, and why the FTC must act to prevent further abuses wherever they occur," the letter said. 

The groups pointed to Ring as an example of privacy violation through facial recognition. These security cameras routinely spy on people without their consent, creating a vast surveillance network police departments can access

The letter expressed concern that video data could be paired with facial recognition algorithms. 

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"Facial recognition is a discriminatory and experimental technology with a bias that harms people of color, women, and gender-non-conforming people" the letter read, also referring to violent policing in black communities. "Even if the prejudicial inaccuracies of this technology were somehow fixed, facial recognition would still pose a danger to everyone, not just customers," it added. 

Ring gathers video data without the subject’s consent, warned the letter. Even the owners of Amazon devices cannot give meaningful consent because they can't know or judge far-reaching future harms of data collection, it pointed out. It listed identity theft and sharing data with third parties as possible dangers. 

The camera system has also proved insecure in the past, the groups warned, pointing to incidents where people have hacked cameras to watch and speak to children, and others where cameras have leaked Wi-Fi passwords

Amazon, which paused its sale of facial recognition software to police departments last year, isn't the only corporation to use surveillance technology. Banks also use facial recognition to monitor customers. 

One of the signatories of this week's letter is the Open Markets Institute, for which FTC chair Lina Khan has worked in the past. 

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