Amazon workers protest sale of facial recognition tech to US immigration service

Amazon employees have protested against the company's sale of its facial recognition technology to the US' Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The group expressed their concerns about how Amazon Web Services' Rekognition tool was being used by the governmental organisation, arguing it was against human rights and will facilitate the department's "historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of Black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses."

It added the use of tech is just another opportunity for the government to spy on individuals, whether they've committed a crime or not.

"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," the group added in the letter to the company's boss, Jeff Bezos. The document was found by political news website The Hill after it was posted on Amazon's internal Wiki.

The voices of Amazon's employees join others, including 40 civil rights organisations and a large proportion of Congress, which argues the use of such technology will have a negative impact on society.

Many of those expressing their worries about how the tech will be used say it will specifically target minorities, including African Americans that cannot be as accurately identified by facial recognition technology. In short, it may well mean people are picked up for crimes they haven't committed.

The letter to Bezos also went on to object to AWS providing its cloud services to data analytics firm Palantir, which works alongside ICE to deport immigrants.

"Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as U.S. authorities tore children away from their parents," the group said. "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."

The revolt coincides with a similar move by members of GitHub's open source developer community which has called on Microsoft to sever ties with the ICE to avoid a mass exodus of developers from the platform.

Microsoft started working with ICE earlier this year, which, it explained, was to help employees make better decisions and use facial recognition services to identify individuals, however, the decision has since sparked anger among the GitHub community, as it feels the company is helping the agency breach the human rights of those seeking asylum.

"As members of the open source community and free software movement who embrace values of freedom, liberty, openness, sharing, mutual aid, and general human kindness, we are horrified by and strongly object to the Trump administration's policies of detainment, denaturalization, deportation, and family separation as carried out by ICE," a post by members on GitHub said, which had been signed by 242 developers at the time of writing.

They explained the acquisition of GitHub by Microsoft has already created feelings of uncertainty about the repository's future, but the tech giant's involvement with ICE has made members even more uneasy. A lot of members have already left the community and those remaining are now requesting Microsoft sever ties with the law enforcement agency.

"Those of us who remained, because we were willing to give Microsoft a chance to become a steward of the open source movement, will not continue to do so should Microsoft continue to abet the trampling of human and civil rights by this administration and its law enforcement agencies," the post added.

Microsoft faced its own employee coup last week, in which staff urged CEO Satya Nadella to cancel current contracts with the government agency. That letter also urged Microsoft to draft a new policy that states the company will never work with clients that violate international human rights law.

Image: Shutterstock

Clare Hopping
Freelance writer

Clare is the founder of Blue Cactus Digital, a digital marketing company that helps ethical and sustainability-focused businesses grow their customer base.

Prior to becoming a marketer, Clare was a journalist, working at a range of mobile device-focused outlets including Know Your Mobile before moving into freelance life.

As a freelance writer, she drew on her expertise in mobility to write features and guides for ITPro, as well as regularly writing news stories on a wide range of topics.