Amazon employees protest sale of facial recognition tech to law enforcement
A group of Amazon employees are pressuring company leadership to stop selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement and to stop providing services to companies who work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE, and we refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights. As ethically concerned Amazonians, we demand a choice in what we build, and a say in how it is used,” a group of Amazon workers wrote in a letter obtained by The Hill and posted on Amazon’s internal wiki addressed to CEO Jeff Bezos.
In their letter, Amazon workers criticized the company selling its facial recognition service – Amazon Web Services Rekognition – to law enforcement and government agencies, citing “historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of Black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses.”
“This will be another powerful tool for the surveillance state, and ultimately serve to harm the most marginalized,” the workers wrote.
After the ACLU reported on Amazon providing facial recognition software to law enforcement, a slew of critics lined up to condemn Amazon’s work, including 40 civil rights organizations as well as members of Congress, including the entire Congressional Black Caucus.
They worry that marginalized groups, including African Americans who are already less likely to be accurately identified by facial recognition technology, could suffer at the hands of the technology.
The workers also voiced their opposition to Amazon Web Services providing digital infrastructure service to Palantir, a data analytics firm that ICE uses to help run their detention and deportation work.
“Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as U.S. authorities tore children away from their parents,” they wrote. “In the face of this immoral U.S. policy, and the U.S.’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS.”
In the past, Amazon has defended Rekognition and dismissed the idea that it is a surveillance tool.
“Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology,” an Amazon spokesperson told The Hill in May. “Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes?”
In addition to not selling their facial recognition tool to law enforcement and dropping Palantir from AWS, Amazon employees also asked Bezos to introduce “strong transparency and accountability measures” for Amazon’s products including “enumerating which law enforcement agencies and companies supporting law enforcement agencies are using Amazon services, and how.”
Their letter follows a similar letter my Microsoft employees calling on the company too to drop its more than $19 million contract with ICE. That letter came amid backlash after a blog post from January about the company’s work with ICE went viral earlier this week.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has downplayed the company’s work with the agency, saying on Tuesday that it was not directly involved with the agency’s policy of separating families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Employees that The Hill spoke with, including one who was a part of the group who organized the letter, said that they opposed aiding ICE in any capacity.
President Trump and the Department of Justice have faced massive blowback from lawmakers in both parties, as well as the public, over its “zero tolerance” immigration policy, which has led to the separations. On Wednesday, Trump signed an executive order to end the forced separations.
Updated: 9:45 p.m.