Amazon employees protest sale of facial recognition software to police

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Workers at Amazon have demanded that their employer stop the sale of facial recognition software and other services to the US government. In a letter addressed to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and posted on the company’s internal wiki, employees said that they “refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights,” citing the mistreatment of refugees and immigrants by ICE and the targeting of black activists by law enforcement. The letter follows similar protests at Google and Microsoft.

“As ethically concerned Amazonians, we demand a choice in what we build, and a say in how it is used,” says the letter, first reported by The Hill. The employees (it’s not clear how many signed the letter) refer to the sale of computer services by IBM to the Nazis as a worrying parallel. “IBM did not take responsibility then, and by the time their role was understood, it was too late,” says the letter. “We will not let that happen again.”

The employees call out two specific businesses that Amazon should end: the sale of facial recognition software to law enforcement (marketed as Amazon Web Services Rekognition), and the sale of AWS cloud services to Palantir (a data analytics firm that provides “mission critical” software to ICE).

Amazon’s sale of Rekognition software to the police was first revealed by an ACLU investigation in May, with the civil liberties group warning that the deployment of the technology could be the beginning of automated mass surveillance in America. Palantir, meanwhile, has been working with ICE since 2014 under President Obama, and helps the agency manage the stacks of personal data needed to target and deport individuals.

The letter written by Amazon’s employees references the separation of children from their families at the US border as a motivation for the protest. They write: “In the face of this immoral US policy, and the US’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.”

This protest from Amazon is the latest outcry from Silicon Valley workers over work with the US government. In March, it was revealed that Google was helping the Pentagon build AI tools to analyze drone surveillance footage. Employees protested and more than a dozen even resigned, and as a result, Google pulled out of the contract and announced a new pledge not to develop AI weapons. More recently, more than 300 employees at Microsoft demanded that the company stop providing cloud services to ICE. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella downplayed the work, saying the company was only providing benign software for tasks like messaging and email.

It remains to be seen whether the protests at Microsoft or Amazon will affect the companies’ policies, but the trend of tech workers taking an active stance on their employer’s work with the US government seems unlikely to end anytime soon.

As seen via Gizmodo, you can read the full letter from the Amazon employees 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

Comments

Good for them.

If you’re comparing the police with Nazis I’m not taking any argument you make seriously.

oh look, another of the "if you got nothing to hide" people…

If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear….

Until the powers that be decide that something about you is something that you now need to hide…

I said nothing about me agreeing with mass surveillance, I said that comparing police with Nazis is a non-starter argument.

I agree with these employees wholeheartedly, more companies should be called on to stop supporting the abuses of ICE and the police until changes are made to make their activities more just and fair. I accept that we need border control and law enforcement, but I’ll never accept the way we do these things now

Count Bezos s one of the totalitarian-leaning corporate autocrats.

Destroyed our town with his robe-distribution center

Are we ever going to get around to reforming our immigration laws? It feels like our laws say we should draw a blue line with red ink, and we’re all arguing about the best shade of red to use to draw a blue line.

Not until the right-wing recognizes brown people as 100% human. Granted, it’s not all their fault, Democrats could have done more in the past when they had the power, the party has been too "centrist" for a long time and too risk-adverse to want to make those waves, but when you look and see that the majority of Republicans supported families being torn apart and many found actual joy in watching it happen it’s hard to see a good way forward while they’re in power

The democrats only controlled house for 2 years and passed healthcare reform in that time. The GOP has controlled the majority of government since the mid 1990s.

To be fair, there was a push for immigration reform that passed the senate, but our boy Jeff Sessions and Steve Miller made sure it died in the house. But it would have been signed by Bush. The only way immigration reform happens is if there is huge public push for a compromise as front facing issue.

Good point

I’m starting to think corporations are the only thing the right wing recognizes as 100% human. I imagine if we could figure out an angle for immigration reform that would imply corporate savings, we could get it done.

Why reform immigration laws when you can just run on stopping illegal immigrants year after year? And promise your voters restrictions on legal immigration that would kill industries that several seasonal industries and drive up the cost of food? Promise them stuff that sounds good in a speech and that has no chance of making its way through the US congress.

Why don’t they quit their jobs in protest. Ah, that’s not going to happen. Cowards! All talk no walk.

That’s a later step. You should first give the company an opportunity to act/respond.

Yeah, good luck with that. As we have been learning over the last few years, it’s Amazon’s way or the highway. Amazon does what they like, and if you don’t like that they will threaten you, or take their business away, or any other thing they can do to get their way.

I still can’t believe they shut down a employee tax on businesses (I think this was in Seattle) where the money was going to go toward helping homeless people.

Once again, the rich not believing they have to be a part of the solution, not just a part of the problem.

However, I’m sure Amazon has found multiple ways to avoid paying their fair share of legitimate taxes.

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