ACLU: Amazon program confuses Congressional members with random people in mug shots

U.S. Rep. John Lewis’ mug shot is a piece of history.

“53 years ago today I was released from Parchman Penitentiary after being arrested in Jackson for using ‘white’ restroom,” he posted a few years ago with the vintage image.

But an Amazon facial recognition program called “Rekognition” incorrectly matched a present-day photo of Lewis with someone else’s mug shot, the American Civil Liberties Union says.

The ACLU experimented with Rekognition and found the software confused 28 Congress members - men and women, Republicans and Democrats and people of all races - with people in mug shots, the activist group says in this report.

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican, and U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat, were among the legislators falsely paired to the mug shots, the report says.

“The false matches were disproportionately of people of color, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus, among them civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis,” the report said. “These results demonstrate why Congress should join the ACLU in calling for a moratorium on law enforcement use of face surveillance.”

Amazon posted a lengthy response to what it called “the misinterpreted ACLU results” and noted the organization did not publish its methodology.

The software, which could be used to “help find lost children, fight against human trafficking or prevent crimes,”

is is generally only the first step in identifying an individual,” Amazon says. The technology is constantly improving, with a commitment to “ensuring that the results are free of any bias that impacts accuracy,” the Amazon response said.

“Machine learning is a very valuable tool to help law enforcement agencies, and while being concerned it’s applied correctly, we should not throw away the oven because the temperature could be set wrong and burn the pizza,” it said.

Amazon's full response is posted here.

In a statement, Lewis called the ACLU report troubling.

“ As a society, we need technology to help resolve human problems, not to add to the mountain of injustices presently facing of people of color in this country,” he said. “Black and brown people are already unjustly targeted through a discriminatory sentencing system that has led to mass incarceration and devastated millions of families. The poor are already ensnared by the complications of a judiciary that leads the innocent to plead guilty because they can find no other way out.”

California Rep. Jimmy Gomez, who was among the members incorrectly matched, has called for a meeting with Amazon chief Jeff Bezos.


The Amazon page about Rekognition calls it "highly accurate."

“Amazon Rekognition is based on the same proven, highly scalable, deep learning technology developed by Amazon’s computer vision scientists to analyze billions of images and videos daily—and requires no machine learning expertise to use,” the site says. “Amazon Rekognition includes a simple, easy-to-use API that can quickly analyze any image or video file that’s stored in Amazon S3. Amazon Rekognition is always learning from new data, and we’re continually adding new labels and facial recognition features to the service.”

As AJC Civil Rights reporter Ernie Suggs previously reported, Lewis' arrest came through his efforts as a Freedom Rider. Having already participated in several Nashville sit-ins as a Fisk University student, Lewis volunteered in 1961 to go on the Freedom Rides, a potentially dangerous mission to challenge segregation at interstate bus terminals across the South.

On several occasions, the riders, including Lewis were harassed and beaten by angry mobs of whites. When he was arrested in May 24, 1961, he was sent to the notorious Parchman Penitentiary.

“Parchman was one of the worst prisons in America,” Lewis said, adding that he somehow avoided being beaten and forced to do hard labor while in prison, although he was only permitted to shower once a week.

Two years after his release, he was the youngest speaker at the March on Washington.

He has represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District since 1986.