Technology

Activists protest Amazon’s cloud conference over company’s work with police, immigration agencies

Courtesy of Conrado Muluc

A group of activists staged a protest at Amazon Web Services’s (AWS) summit Tuesday in an attempt to bring attention to the company’s work with immigration agencies and police departments.

The collection of roughly a dozen protesters from MediaJustice, the Muslim Counterpublics Lab and For Us Not Amazon gathered in front of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., during the event’s keynote speech.

The organizations are hoping to bring attention to the ways they say technologies provided by AWS, Amazon’s cloud service provider and one of the main sources of the company’s revenue, are being used to surveil and target Black and brown communities. 

“These summits are just a part of the PR strategy to sanitize Amazon’s role as facilitators in state violence,” said Myaisha Hayes, campaign strategies director at MediaJustice, a nonprofit that focuses on equity in technology and media.

“While attendees will spend three days learning all about the power and capabilities of AWS, I doubt they’ll hear about the people who have been displaced, arrested, and even deported because of Amazon’s technology,” she told The Hill.

A handful of the protesters attempted to enter the event to make their voices heard during the speech. Despite registering for the event, Hayes and Maha Hilal and Kris Garrity of the Muslim Counterpublics Lab had their credentials revoked and were asked by Amazon staff and building security to leave before the keynote kicked off.

In a video of the incident shared with The Hill, Hilal asks an Amazon employee why they are being removed and whether he plans to ask other Black or Muslim women at the event to leave.

“I don’t see any color,” the Amazon employee, who identified himself as John, replied.

One activist, Arlin Telles from For Us Not Amazon, was not initially removed and did briefly disrupt the keynote speech by Max Peterson, AWS’s vice president of worldwide public sector work, before being escorted out of the building by security. Telles told The Hill she is now banned from all future AWS events.

An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment on the record about the protest or removal of the activists.

The activists had intended to deliver a letter to AWS calling out the company’s agreement to host the Department of Homeland Security’s Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART) biometric database once it goes live.

The letter co-signed by 38 civil society organizations calls on Amazon to end its agreement to host HART, which they call an “invasive biometrics database that will supercharge surveillance and deportation, risking human rights violations.”

A recent report by the immigrants rights groups Mijente, Just Futures Law and the Immigrant Defense Project estimates that HART will include facial scans, fingerprints, voice prints and other biometric information for more than 270 million people.

The database, the groups argue, will facilitate the targeting and deportation of thousands of individuals.

Protesters hope to educate the public about the links between Amazon and immigration enforcement, something the average American is unlikely to associate with the company that they best know for delivering their packages quickly.

“All this complicity that Amazon has in state violence is unseen,” Danny Cendejas, a field organizer at Media Justice, told The Hill.

The protesters were also critical of AWS’s work with domestic law enforcement.

The company placed a one-year moratorium on and then indefinitely paused police department access to its facial recognition technology after intense criticism shortly after the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests.

AWS’s Rekognition software has been criticized, including by Amazon’s own employees, as being less accurate in identifying people of color. At least three Black men have been incorrectly arrested based on facial recognition matches in recent years, although Rekognition is not known to be involved in any of those cases.

At the same time that AWS stopped providing Rekognition to police, Amazon was expanding its partnerships with departments across the country for its Ring doorbells.

The camera-enabled doorbells, which are operated on AWS networks, have been criticized for dramatically expanding the surveillance power of law enforcement without any checks. Ring has partnerships with more than 1,800 departments, up from 770 at the beginning of 2020.

AWS’s tools have also been used by a company seeking to monitor and analyze inmate calls, which privacy groups say could amplify racial bias and leave prisoners at the whims of unreliable artificial intelligence technology.

“Next Monday will mark the two year anniversary of George Floyd’s death,” Hayes told The Hill. “And over that time, despite many pledges to value Black lives, Amazon’s actions have actually made Black people less safe.”

Protesters also called for AWS to terminate its work with several federal agencies that they say have degraded Muslims’ privacy and security by surveilling and targeting them.

“Obviously there is a lot of collusion (with) Amazon and hosting institutions and agencies like the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency), FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigations), DHS, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) etc.,” Hilal said. “Amazon makes a choice to host these agencies and institutions in spite of the violence that they cause to Black and brown communities.”

Tags Amazon Amazon Web Services Department of Homeland Security For Us Not Amazon Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology MediaJustice Muslim Counterpublics Lab Rekognition
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