BAILEY T. STEEN | FRIDAY, AUGUST 3, 2018
Silicon Valley is no stranger to destructive ethics. Now their tech giants have another surveillance problem on their hands. Based on some new reports from The Intercept and The New York Times, employees at Amazon are calling on their multi-billionaire CEO Jeff Bezos to cut ties with the government agencies seeking to buy A.I. facial-recognition software from the corporation, according to an internal letter sent through one of the company’s mailing lists.
The software, otherwise known as Rekognition, was brought to public attention by The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the group raising concerns this could be used for unconstitutional means by both the military and law enforcement agencies. They argued that warrantless harvesting of citizen’s facial details, particularly ethnic minorities, political dissidents and wrongful targets, could violate the forth amendment, which guarantees protections from illegal search and seizure, in disastrous ways.
“Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as U.S. authorities tore children away from their parents,” the letter, obtained by Gizmodo, states. “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 refuse to build the platform that powers ICE, and we refuse to contribute to tools that violate human rights,” the letter continues. “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.”
Employees soon began organizing protests against their executives.
Their concerns appear to be falling on death’s ears, however.
Teresa Carlson, the vice president of worldwide public sector business for Amazon Web Services, made this stance clear at July’s Aspen Security Forum: “We are committed to our customer, and we are unwaveringly committed to the U.S. government and the governments we work with around the world.”
“Employees need a voice,” Carlson admitted, acknowledging the criticism. “I can’t speak for any other company, but we want to work with our government. We feel compelled. … We believe government should have the same capability — our war fighters out there in the field, our civil servants — should have those same capabilities. You’re always gonna have bad actors.”
So, in non-bureaucratic transition, does that mean it’s damned be the consequences, Amazon just wants that money regardless?
The comments went largely unreported outside of smaller publications who are still opposed to techno-mafias being subsidized by the government. While mainstream outlets like The Washington Post — also owned by Bezos — were quick to show Google removed their “don’t be evil” motto shortly before their involvement with Project Maven was revealed, resulting in their begrudging refusal to sell face recognition tech for the U.S. drone program when the contract ends next year. Amazon, on the other-hand, saw no reservations about hoarding more of that contract when their time comes.
To credit The Post, who barely reported on the company’s multi-billion dollar ties with the military contract, their reporters have criticised the sale of surveillance technology when it pertains to police and ICE, the controversial immigration enforcement agency at the center of the Trump administration’s current family separation scandal. Leaked emails obtained by The Intercept allege Amazon was “in the running” for the controversial initiative when it was launched by the Defense Department last year. Now, suddenly, Amazon appears to have “work loads” related to the project following Google’s exit announcement, which will only increase with more time.
According to another report from Defense One, a publication focused on U.S. national security, the project’s soul purpose was to assist Predator and Reaper drones in striking targets “in the Middle East”. The government, under presidents from Bush to Obama, often touts these are used for “targeted” assaults with “precise accuracy”. This is contradictory to government documents which reveal 90 percent of casualties from drones are unintended civilians rather than the intended terrorist. These casualties appear to have increased 52 percent under President Donald Trump.
It can be argued these involvements will only improve U.S. foreign policy, which currently shows disastrous results in unstable territory such as the Middle East. However, is Amazon’s abilities currently overrated? In May, an ACLU investigation revealed the extent of Amazon’s Rekognition software, falsely identifying 28 members of Congress, a majority of which minorities, against 25,000 public mugshots across the country.
None of the members of Congress were in the mugshot lineup, showing this could lead to misuse when it comes to targeting from police, let alone on the battlefield where soldiers require the upmost security technology. An unnamed Amazon spokesperson told the The Verge this was the result of “poor calibration” that can’t be used with a “reasonable level of certainty”.
“Amazon Rekognition is primed for abuse in the hands of governments,” the ACLU stated in a public letter addressed to Bezos. “This product poses a grave threat to communities, including people of colour and immigrants, and to the trust and respect Amazon has worked to build. An identification — whether it’s accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives. Congress must take these threats seriously, hit the brakes, and enact a moratorium on law enforcement use of face recognition.”
Thanks for reading!
Bailey T. Steen is a journalist, editor, artist and film critic based in Victoria, Australia, but is also Putin’s Puppet™ on occasion.
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