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Employees ask Amazon not to sell face recognition to law enforcement

Mariella Moon

A group of Amazon employees has penned a letter to company chief Jeff Bezos, asking him to stop selling facial recognition to law enforcement. They said that "in the midst of historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of Black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses," Amazon's facial recognition software will surely serve as a powerful surveillance tool for the government. They also pointed out that a tool like it will "ultimately serve to harm the most marginalized." The employees wrote the letter after an American Civil Liberties Union investigation revealed that the tech giant sells its Rekognition facial detection system to law enforcement customers.

Orlando's police chief admitted that the city's cops are testing the software in their headquarters and in a few places downtown. However, he said that it's only tracking the cops who volunteered to be part of the pilot. Despite his assurance that the department isn't using it to spy on residents, two members of the House of Representatives demanded details on how law enforcement is using the software exactly.

Amazon has been facing increasing pressure from privacy groups and investors to stop selling facial recognition to government clients. It remains to be seen whether its employees' plea is more effective, but they likely penned the letter in hopes of emulating what happened at Google. If you'll recall, thousands of Google employees signed a petition (and even quit) to end the big G's Project Maven deal. The military drone AI initiative would give the Pentagon access to an open-source AI software that will help it flag drone images for human review. Google reportedly decided not to renew its Project Maven contract due to all the pushback.

In addition to asking the company to stop selling Rekognition to the government, the employees also want Amazon to kick Palantir off the AWS cloud services. According to a report by The Intercept, Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses the Amazon-hosted data-mining firm's technology to root out immigrants.

You can read the employees' letter in full below:

"Dear Jeff,

We are troubled by the recent report from the ACLU exposing our company's practice of selling AWS Rekognition, a powerful facial recognition technology, to police departments and government agencies. We don't have to wait to find out how these technologies will be used. We already know that in the midst of 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. We are not alone in this view: over 40 civil rights organizations signed an open letter in opposition to the governmental use of facial recognition, while over 150,000 individuals signed another petition delivered by the ACLU.

We also know that Palantir runs on AWS. And we know that ICE relies on Palantir to power its detention and deportation programs. Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as U.S. authorities tore children away from their parents. Since April 19, 2018 the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers. This treatment goes against U.N. Refugee Agency guidelines that say children have the right to remain united with their parents, and that asylum-seekers have a legal right to claim asylum. 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.

Technology like ours is playing an increasingly critical role across many sectors of society. What is clear to us is that our development and sales practices have yet to acknowledge the obligation that comes with this. Focusing solely on shareholder value is a race to the bottom, and one that we will not participate in.

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. We learn from history, and we understand how IBM's systems were employed in the 1940s to help Hitler. IBM did not take responsibility then, and by the time their role was understood, it was too late. We will not let that happen again. The time to act is now.

We call on you to:

Stop selling facial recognition services to law enforcement

Stop providing infrastructure to Palantir and any other Amazon partners who enable ICE.

Implement strong transparency and accountability measures, that include enumerating which law enforcement agencies and companies supporting law enforcement agencies are using Amazon services, and how.

Our company should not be in the surveillance business; we should not be in the policing business; we should not be in the business of supporting those who monitor and oppress marginalized populations.

Sincerely,

Amazonians"

Gizmodo, ACLU

  • This article originally appeared on Engadget.