Amazon May Be Forcing Its Sellers To Contribute To Its Facial Recognition Program

In this Sept. 13, 2018, file photo Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder and CEO, speaks at The Economic Club of Washington’s Milestone Celebration in Washington. (Photo: Cliff Owen, AP)

Amazon has consistently faced ongoing outcry over its contentious Rekognition software, but that apparently isn’t stopping the company from testing out facial recognition technology on its sellers.

BuzzFeed News reported Wednesday that an individual in Vietnam claimed that while attempting to create a seller profile, the company prompted him to grant access to Amazon to his webcam and provide a clip of his face. More troubling, however, is that the individual claimed he was not able to opt out of the prompt and that after complying, he could not locate the video in his profile.

In a screenshot of the apparent prompt provided to BuzzFeed News, the individual was told to provide the company with access to his webcam so that Amazon could “record a 5-second video of your face” that it said would be encrypted. According to BuzzFeed News, the company failed to answer some pretty big questions about the tool’s potential implications. Per the report:

Amazon declined to explain why or when it began asking some sellers for video proof of identity, in what regions it requests that proof, and what it does with the seller videos it records. The Seattle-based tech giant also would not say if the videos are processed by its Rekognition facial recognition technology, if a seller can remove video proof of identity from Amazon’s servers, and whether or not it has updated its seller agreements and privacy policies to address the collection and storage of biometric data.

Reached for comment about the reported feature, an Amazon spokesperson told Gizmodo in a statement by email that the company “is always innovating to improve the seller experience.”

The measure appears to be an effort to stem the creation of multiple seller accounts, which the company does not allow (though Amazon does allow sellers to apply for an exemption if they “have a legitimate business need for a second account”). The company requires the verification of several forms of identification to establish a seller account; however, as BuzzFeed News noted, users can reportedly get around this rule by having others establish a legitimate account for them that they’ll then pay for.

To say that Amazon’s run with facial recognition technology has been problematic would be charitable. Just last week, Amazon’s own assurances about the technology were undermined by Rekognition’s only known law enforcement customer, the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon, which told Gizmodo that it does “not set nor do we utilise a confidence threshold.”

Even as researchers and watchdogs have raised serious concerns about the technology and its questionable results, Amazon has said that with respect to police work, “we guide customers to set a higher threshold of at least 95% or higher.”

While it’s not clear whether Amazon is using Rekognition for seller verification, it’s still unsettling that the company is squirrelling away video clips of people’s faces for purposes unknown. And any uncertainty about how the company is using sellers’ biometric data would certainly not, as the company said, seem to “improve the seller experience.”

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