Monday, 25 June 2018 08:30

Amazon workers want facial recognition software sale to cops halted Featured

By
Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. Supplied

Workers at retail giant Amazon have written to chief executive Jeff Bezos, telling him not to sell Rekognition facial recognition software to law enforcement agencies and to cancel the contract for hosting data-mining company Palantir on its cloud.

Else, they have refused to build the platform that powers ICE and will not contribute to tools that they claim violates human rights, according to a report on Gizmodo

The ICE has been shrouded in controversy over the last two weeks, following its action at the US-Mexico border to separate children from their parents who were seeking asylum.

The employees said they had been made aware of the Rekognition sale by a report from the American Civil Liberties Union, which said the software was being sold to police departments and government agencies, .

The ACLU report, in May, said: "[Amazon] has developed a powerful and dangerous new facial recognition system and is actively helping governments deploy it. ...Marketing materials and documents obtained by ACLU affiliates in three states reveal a product that can be readily used to violate civil liberties and civil rights."

In their internal letter, the Amazon employees wrote: "We already know that in the midst of historic militarisation 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 marginalised.

"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 US authorities tore children away from their parents."

The Amazon staff said they had three demands:

  • "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."

Their protest comes on the heels of an uprising at Microsoft, where employees wrote to chief executive Satya Nadella, demanding that the software behemoth end its contract with ICE.

Developers who use GitHub launched a similar protest, threatening to move their projects from the source code repository GitHub, which is now owned by Microsoft, unless the ICE contract was ended.

Last month, a dozen Google employees quit the company to protest against its involvement in a Pentagon initiative named Project Maven where Google's AI technology was being used to improve targeting by drones.

Google later said that it would not renew the contract to work on Maven, but gave no assurance that it would keep out of future similar projects. The search giant is bidding to participate in a big Defence Department deal worth US$10 billion.

The full letter:

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 militarisation 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 marginalised. 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 detention and 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 centres. 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 marginalised populations.

Sincerely,

Amazonians

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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