Whistleblower Claims Amazon Sold Facial Recognition Tech to Russia

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Key Takeaways

  • An Amazon ex-employee accused the company of breaching UK sanctions by selling facial recognition tech to Russia after the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
  • Charles Forrest also accused Amazon of breaking its self-imposed suspension on police use of facial recognition technology.
  • Amazon denied the allegations.

According to Financial Times, an ex-Amazon employee claimed the company breached UK sanctions by selling its Rekognition facial recognition technology to Moscow following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A London employment tribunal hearing this week heard that the whistleblower, Charles Forrest, claimed he was unfairly dismissed in 2023 after accusing Amazon of several issues between November 2022 and May 2023. 

Forrest claimed Amazon made a deal with Russian company Visionlabs to provide access to its Rekognition facial recognition technology. According to the tribunal, this deal took place through a shell company in the Netherlands.

The Amazon ex-employee also accused the company of breaking its self-imposed suspension on police use of facial recognition technology, put in place after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. 

At the time, Amazon and Microsoft both placed a pause on supplying law enforcement with computer vision systems in a stand against the racial bias that sometimes appears in facial recognition technology (FRT). The systems have reportedly misidentified people of color more frequently than white people, and have faced criticism for being unethical. Forrest claims the tech was used by UK police to process “mugshots” and identify perpetrators. 

Amazon denies selling its facial recognition technology to the Russian company, telling Financial Times it believed the claims lacked merit. It also denies unfairly dismissing Forrest, alleging that the ex-employee was fired for gross misconduct after failing to work his contracted hours or respond to emails and attend meetings.

The company did appear to acknowledge the breach of its earlier moratorium on police use of facial recognition technology, adding that since this was self-imposed, there were no legal obligations.