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Amazon employees protest sale of face recognition software to police

Workers wrote to CEO Jeff Bezos "in the face of this immoral US policy."

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Amazon employees want CEO Jeff Bezos to end contracts to sell facial recognition software to US law enforcement.

Brent Lewis, Denver Post via Getty Images

Amazon workers reportedly wrote to their boss asking him to stop selling facial recognition software to US law enforcement.

In the letter to CEO Jeff Bezos, first reported by Gizmodo, the employees outlined their fears about how the company's Rekognition technology would be used by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security in the current political climate.

"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," they wrote.

The letters echoes the ACLU's recent push against Bezos -- the civil liberties organization on Monday delivered a petition signed by representatives from nearly 70 groups and Amazon shareholders worried about immigrants' rights, in addition to privacy and discrimination concerns.

The Amazon workers also demanded that Bezos stop supporting data analytics company Palantir, which is used by ICE.

The letter follows a successful effort by Google employees to end the company's role in a military initiative to use artificial intelligence to power targeted drone attacks, along with the reported postponement of another project.

Amazon declined to comment and Palantir did not return a request to do so.

The employees' letter can be read 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

Updated June 22 at 7:20 a.m. PT: Adds that Amazon declined to comment.