Following employee protests at Google and Microsoft over government contracts, workers at Amazon are circulating an internal letter to CEO Jeff Bezos, asking him to stop selling the company’s Rekognition facial recognition software to law enforcement and to boot the data-mining firm Palantir from its cloud services.
Jeff Bezos, centre, the CEO and founder of Amazon.com, laughs as he talks with Ron Gagliardo, right, the lead horticulturist of the Amazon Spheres, following the grand opening ceremony for the plant-filled geodesic domes built for Amazon.com employees. Photo: Ted S. Warren (AP Images)
Amazon employees objected to the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy at the US border, which has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents.
“Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as US authorities tore children away from their parents,” the letter states. “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.”
In May, an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union revealed that Amazon had heavily marketed its Rekognition software to police departments and government agencies. The technology can recognise and track faces in real time, and the ACLU noted that such a powerful surveillance tool could easily be misused by law enforcement.
"While Mr Bezos remains silent, Amazon employees are standing up and joining shareholders, civil rights groups, and concerned consumers to call out Amazon's face surveillance technology for what it is: a unique threat to civil rights and especially to the immigrants and people of colour under attack by this administration," said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties director at the ACLU of California.
"We stand in support of these employees' call on Mr Bezos to do the right thing. Amazon must stop providing dangerous face surveillance to the government."
Earlier this week, several Amazon shareholders called on the company to stop selling Rekognition to the police. That backlash has now spread among employees as well.
"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," the employee letter states.
The Amazon workers' letter follows employee activism at other major tech firms such as Microsoft and Google. Earlier this week, Microsoft employees called on the company to cancel its cloud computing contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
CEO Satya Nadella defended Microsoft's work with ICE, saying that his company merely provided the agency with routine tech services such as email, calendar and messaging.
And earlier this month, Google employees saw the success of internal activism against their company's artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon - at a staff meeting in June, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced that the company would not renew its contract for Project Maven, a US Defence Department pilot program that uses artificial intelligence to analyse drone footage.
Google also announced new ethics principles to govern its artificial intelligence work.
It isn't clear yet whether the employee campaigns at Amazon and Microsoft will have the same impact as the employee activism at Google - but the pushback at Amazon and Microsoft this week shows that tech employees are increasingly willing to speak up against work that they believe to be unethical.
In addition to its demands about Rekognition, the Amazon employee letter also calls on the company to boot Palantir, the Peter Thiel-founded firm that offers predictive policing tools to law enforcement and enjoys a hefty contract with ICE, from Amazon Web Services. (Thiel secretly funded a lawsuit that led to the bankruptcy of Gawker Media, Gizmodo US' former parent company.)
The Amazon letter appears to be the first time an employee demand letter has moved beyond calls to cancel a specific contract to demands to remove a customer from a cloud platform. Although it may seem like a small distinction, it's an important one for tech companies.
Leadership at Microsoft and Google have drawn a distinction between providing benign cloud services to ethically questionable customers and aiding these firms with specific tech that could be used to cause harm. Google, for instance, said that its AI should be used for "socially beneficial" purposes but that it would continue to work with the government for projects like search and rescue or cybersecurity.
"We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE," the Amazon letter states, "and we refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights."
Read the full letter 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 organisations 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 detentionand deportation programs. Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as US 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 UN 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 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.
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.
We have reached out to Amazon and Palantir, but had not received a response at time of writing.