Amazon Breaks Silence On Aiding Law Enforcement Following Employee Backlash

Photo: Elaine Thompson, AP

During a company-wide meeting today, Amazon addressed its relationship with law enforcement agencies, including Immigrations Customs and Enforcement—its first direct response to employee concerns raised in June about the company’s often successful attempts to provide cloud infrastructure and facial recognition software for these government authorities.

According to two current Amazon workers, questions for today were pre-screened and there were no microphones for an in-person Q&A. Still, a question regarding these uses of the company’s facial recognition software, called Rekognition, made it into the program:

“What is being done in response to the concerns voiced by both Amazon employees and civil rights groups regarding Amazon selling facial recognition technology to government and police organisations, including ICE?” reads the question, according to a transcript of the remarks sent out to an Amazon employee mailing list, obtained by Gizmodo. According to this transcript, CEO Jeff Bezos passed the question to Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy. His response is somewhat garbled in the transcript, but the thrust is that the Amazon’s Terms of Service for its facial recognition products is sufficient to protect people from misuse.

His remarks are below:

Thank you, so we’re referring to Amazon Rekognition, which is AWS’ deep learning image recognition, facial recognition, and video recognition service. And, you know, with over five hundred thousand employees like we have at Amazon, I think we’re going to have people who have opinions that are very wide ranging, which is great, but we feel really great and really strongly about the value that amazon recognition (sic) is providing our customers of all sizes and all types of industries in law enforcement and out of law enforcement.

You see it in the value people are actually getting even after just about a year year and a half of the service where Rekognition is actively been used to help stop human trafficking, to reunite missing kids with parents for educational applications, for security and multi factor authentication.

There’s a lot of value being enjoyed from amazon recognition (sic). Now now, of course, with any kind of technology, you have to make sure that it’s being used responsibly and that’s true with new and existing technology just think about all the evil that could be done with computers or servers and has been done and you think about what a different place our world would be if we didn’t allow people to have computers, so you don’t want to get rid of that technology. You want to make sure that people use the technology responsibly, and we have a set of terms and services in AWS. And with all our services, including recognition (sic), where if people violate those terms of services and don’t use them responsibly, they won’t be able to use our services any longer. In fact, if we find people are violating folks constitutional rights, they won’t be able to use the services any longer. I also think by the way, in a democracy is also often the role and the responsibilities of the government to help specify what the guidelines and regulations should be about technology. And if and when that happens, we will abide by those as well. Thank you.

The Project on Government Oversight revealed earlier this year that Amazon approached ICE regarding use of Rekognition. ICE has previously told Gizmodo that it does not have contracts with Amazon that specifically pertain to facial recognition. Though ICE does have contracts with data-mining firm Palantir, which uses AWS as its cloud computing platform. Employees specifically cited Amazon’s work with Palantir in their letter to the company’s leadership.

The company has also been actively marketing the facial recognition technology to police, already partnering with law enforcement agencies in Oregon and Florida, as detailed in documents obtained by the ACLU.

An Amazon employee who asked to remain anonymous for fear or reprisal told Gizmodo that Jassy’s response didn’t address the concerns of workers adequately. “Should we sell a service to a customer we know is going to use it unethically just because the customer is a government? One of the Amazon leadership principles is ‘Insist on the Highest Standards,’ but ‘is this blatantly illegal?’ is the lowest possible standard.”

“If Amazon doesn’t know how customers are using the technology, how can it know if customers are violating its ‘Terms of Service’? Amazon’s leadership team is doubling down on a biased and dangerous technology that it’s own workers are warning against, and that it acknowledges it can’t adequately control,” Kade Crockford, Director of the ACLU’s Technology for Liberty Program, told Gizmodo. “Surveillance technology in the hands of police is often wrongly used to target immigrants, communities of colour, and political protesters. A ‘Terms of Service’ won’t change that.”

We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment and will update if we hear back.

Updates: Minor typographical errors in the transcription have been changed to reflect Amazon’s official transcript. We’ve also added comment from the ACLU

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