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article imageAmazon workers protest facial recognition software sale to cops

By Ken Hanly     Jun 22, 2018 in Business
Seattle - Workers at Amazon are demanding that the company cease selling facial recognition software to the U.S. government as it would be contributing tools that violate human rights.
A letter to CEO Jeff Bezos cites recent mistreatment of refugees and immigrants by ICE as well as the targeting of black activists by law enforcement. The letter noted as a parallel IBM's sale of computer services to the Nazis: “As ethically concerned Amazonians, we demand a choice in what we build, and a say in how it is used. 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.”
Amazon Web Services Rekognition and AWS cloud services
The workers said that Amazon Web Services Rekognition, the facial recognition software, should not be sold to law enforcement. The AWS cloud services should not be sold to Palantir. Palantir is a data analytics firm that provides mission critical software to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The sale of Rekognition software to the police was discovered by a American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) investigation in May. The ACLU warned that the deployment of such technology could be the beginning of automated mass surveillance in the US.
Palantir has been working with ICE since 2014 when Obama was president. It helps the agency manage the mass of personal data needed to target and deport individuals. The letter makes particular reference to the separation of families at the US border as a prime motivation for their protest. The entire letter can be found here.
The letter says about Palantir: "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."
We will have to wait and see whether the protests at Amazon will change policy but the trend is for tech workers to take an active stance when their companies engage in work which is questioned by many including employees.
The Amazon protest follows earlier ones at Google and Microsoft
In March, it was revealed that Silicon Valley workers were helping build AI tools to analyze drone surveillance footage. In response workers protested and more than a dozen even resigned. The protest was successful and Google pulled out of the contract and even pledged not to develop AI weapons.
Google had offered its resources to the US Department of Defense for Project Maven. This is a research initiative to develop computer vision algorithms that can analyze drone footage. More than 3,100 Google employees signed a letter asking Sundar Pichai the Google CEO to reevaluate the company's involvement. The letter said that Google should not be involved in the business of war.
Microsoft has attempted to downplay its work with ICE but this has not stopped internal dissent. More than 300 employees have signed a letter denouncing the campaign. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella claims the company was only providing benign software for tasks such as messaging and email. It remains to be seen whether the protests will result in any change of policy.
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