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, reported The Verge.
“As ethically concerned Amazonians, we demand a choice in what we build, and a say in how it is used,” says the letter. 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.
In the correspondence, 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.”
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 any time soon.
As seen via Gizmodo, you can read the full letter from the Amazon employees below:
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.
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.
The US Department of Defense is involved in Project Maven, a research initiative to develop computer vision algorithms that can analyze drone images. In response, more than 3,100 Google employees signed a letter urging Google CEO Sundar Pichai to reevaluate the company’s involvement, as “Google should not be in the business of war,” as reported by The New York Times.
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.