A New ‘Buy Black’ Campaign Aims to Avert an Amazon Surveillance State

A New ‘Buy Black’ Campaign Aims to Avert an Amazon Surveillance State
Illustration: Angelica Alzona, Ben Currie,Photo: Ring, Shutterstock

After a summer of nationwide protests against unchecked state violence brutalising Black people in America, Amazon’s ever-escalating push to make itself indispensable to daily police work is drawing fresh scrutiny from a host of leading civil rights advocates. The tech giant’s efforts to support and enhance police surveillance capabilities, aimed unevenly at communities of colour, has given rise to a new digital campaign urging Americans to be more conscientious with their spending dollars — by giving that money instead to Black-owned businesses.

MediaJustice, a nonprofit working to grow grassroots movements against racial and economic inequality, launched the campaign, “Break Up With Amazon,” on Wednesday. It hopes over time to build a consumer coalition sizeable enough to force the world’s largest retailer to end its business practices that are secretly arming police with powerfully invasive tools. Specifically, its flawed facial recognition technology, Rekognition, and its nationwide network of Ring surveillance cameras that it readily grants police access to.

“The uprisings have been heard loud and clear: we want a world beyond police. Each of us has a responsibility to usher in that new world by defending Black lives, and that responsibility includes divesting from the massive culture of racism, violence, and surveillance that uphold the police state status quo,” Myaisha Hayes, MediaJustice’s campaign strategies director, said.

The campaign is joined by several other top digital and civil rights organisations, including Mijente, Fight for the Future, MPower Change, the Surveillance Oversight Technology Project (STOP), Kairos, Media Alliance, Demand Progress, the Athena Coalition, and the Action Centre for Race and the Economy (ACRE). Collectively, the groups accuse Amazon of profiting while diminishing transparency and accountability around police use of advanced technologies targeting mostly Black and brown communities, accelerating America’s decades-long march towards “big data policing,” itself an ominous trend.

MediaJustice Executive Director Steven Renderos said during a call Tuesday that the campaign’s primary goal is to underscore the role played by Amazon in the context of expanding police power. The hope is that people will seize the opportunity to pledge support for Black lives by using money they already intended to spend, just not with a massive corporation focused on developing secretive relationships with the police. A website launched by MediaJustice on Wednesday allows users to sign a pledge to “support Black lives, not Amazon’s profits,” and the group says going forward it intends to offer a guide with lists of Black-owned businesses for online shoppers.

“The question I had coming into this was wanting to understand how many partnerships Amazon has entered into with law enforcement since the killing of George Floyd,” Renderos says. “Partially because, like a lot of tech companies, Amazon and Jeff Bezos, in particular, were saying a lot of the right things: ‘If we lose customers because of our stance on Black lives, that’s ok.’ They pledged $US10 ($14) million to Black-led organisations. All good stuff.”

Data recently collected by MediaJustice, however, showed that despite spending time and money on a public relations campaign to declare its support for a movement against the gratuitous deaths of Black Americans at the hands of police, Amazon has quietly continued fostering new relationships with police across the country. As MediaJustice points out, Amazon’s home-security company Ring has established more than 280 new partnerships with police departments since the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last year, according to its own figures.

Neither Amazon nor Ring responded to Gizmodo’s requests for comment by publication time.

“For us, I think we see the scale of their partnerships getting to a place now where they’re touching almost 10 per cent of the nation’s law enforcement agencies,” Renderos said. “What we’re most concerned with, the doomsday scenario, is that you have essentially a built-out apparatus of surveillance at the neighbourhood level all across the country.”

Ring, which Amazon acquired in April 2018, faced a bevy of critical reporting last year over myriad businesses practices it sought to conceal from the public. Ring compelled the police departments it had partnered with to stay silent about its arrangements, going as far as to restrict in business agreements what police officials were allowed to say publicly about the company. In August 2019, Gizmodo reported that Ring had prohibited police from using the term “surveillance.” Any statements by city officials regarding Ring had to be approved first by Ring’s public relations staff. One document, obtained through a public records request, revealed that Ring had altered the words of a New Jersey police chief before his statement was handed to the press.

Further reporting revealed that Ring was attempting, unannounced, to obtain access to real-time 911 caller data and that, despite publicly alluding otherwise, it had at one point given police statistics on users who refused law enforcement requests for access to videos stored on Amazon servers.

Package theft is reportedly on the rise in major urban areas like Manhattan, up as much as 20 per cent from a decade ago, according to the New York Times. But the problems created by Ring’s solution to package thieves — real-time neighbourhood surveillance that observes far more than just doorsteps and captures without consent mostly people uninvolved in any crime — outweighs the sense of security it offers, says Reuben Hayslett, a campaigner at Demand Progress.

“It’s not always just looking on your property, right? You’re looking at public footpaths, sometimes if you live across the street from a school and you have Amazon Ring, that’s taking a lot of unconsented video of children and it’s become really disturbing,” Hayslett said. “The way Amazon packaged it was very much around this nice, safe sense of security, the stable, nice nuclear family and whatnot. But the thing is, its impact is so much greater than that. At some point this company had to realise what that was, but not only did they do nothing, they continued to push it.”

According to MediaJustice, Ring has partnered itself with more than 1,600 law enforcement agencies at the county and local level since March 2018. The areas where police are requesting the most footage from Ring users are, on average, more Black and brown than the rest of the country, and have more foreign-born residents, according to analysis by Gizmodo.

Other analysis by Gizmodo last year revealed cameras within close proximity to abortion clinics and immigration law offices, among other sensitive locations that alarmed civil liberties advocates. Some 4,000 posts on Neighbours, Ring’s “neighbourhood watch” app, showed subjects who were either young children or appeared to be teenagers, most likely posted without their own knowledge or consent, or that of their parents.

In June, shortly after the killing of George Floyd, Amazon announced a moratorium on Rekognition, its facial recognition tool. The decision to “pause” development of its tool, which has for years been criticised for its flaws — facial recognition technology being broadly inaccurate, particularly so when it comes Black and brown individuals, especially women of colour — stood in sharp contrast to a decision by Microsoft to completely ban police departments from using its own facial recognition software until Congress passes a federal law to regulate its use.

Amazon’s aversion to transparency, even when providing services paid for by public officials with public tax dollars, is one of the foremost complains of civil rights organisations. For MediaJustice and its allies, it’s also one of the easiest ways to demonstrate Amazon’s disregard for its own customers’ privacy. It currently remains a mystery, for instance, how many police departments have used Rekognition. Perplexingly, Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy said in an interview this February that he didn’t think Amazon even knew “the total number of police departments that are using [Amazon’s] facial recognition technology.”

Amazon officials did not respond to questions from Gizmodo on Tuesday about whether it had abided by its declared moratorium on pushing Rekognition over the past five months, nor did they respond when asked if Amazon had been in contact with any police agencies about adopting Rekognition in that time. “The last conversation we had with Amazon about Rekognition was about a year ago where we met with their policy counsel,” said Renderos. “They were not feeling compelled at all to let us know how many partnerships they have with law enforcement across the country.”

“Amazon has been really cagey about a lot of its surveillance stuff,” Hayslett added. “They’re really cagey about Rekognition and whether or not they were actively trying to sell it to law enforcement or federal government agencies. They’ve been really cagey about [Amazon Web Services] being used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as sort of the underlying infrastructure for the way that they manage data. So it’s difficult to trust this company.”

“From a consumer’s perspective they might be trustworthy because they get that box to your doorstep,” he said, “but on the backend, everything else that they’re doing and all things they continue to be secretive about, it’s so insidious.”