A group of over 85 coalition groups sent letters to Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, yesterday, urging the companies to not sell their facial surveillance technology to the government. The letter, penned down by the likes of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) among others, intends to make it clear to the tech giants about how their decision can deeply impact the safety and trust of its community members.
The letter talks about the dangers of facial surveillance technology and how it provides the government with an “unprecedented ability to track who we are, where we go, what we do, and who we know”. It states that face recognition tech would not only provide the government with the power to target immigrants, religious minorities, and people of colour, but it will also develop a constant fear of being watched by the government among the public.
The groups requested the companies to take responsibility for their decision and to commit to not selling face surveillance to the government.“Systems built on face surveillance will amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias that harms these and other over-policed and over-surveilled communities”, states the letter.
In a letter written to Microsoft, the group mentions that Brad Smith, President, Microsoft, acknowledged the dangers of face surveillance in a speech and blog post published in December 2018. But, despite Smith acknowledging the dangers, the letter states that he then proposed “wholly inadequate safeguards” for face surveillance in his blog post. The group does not approve of these safeguards as they believe that it is not enough to stop the government from widespread monitoring and tracking of the public. “Microsoft has a responsibility to do more than speak about ethical principles; it must also act in accordance with those principles”, states the letter.
Speaking of the letter written to Google, the group acknowledges the fact that Google announced that it will not sell its facial recognition product unless the dangers associated with the tech are addressed, in December 2018. “By finalizing its commitment not to sell a face surveillance product, Google would also be safeguarding the trust of its workers, shareholders, and customers. It’s time for Google to fully commit to not releasing a face recognition product that could be used by governments”, reads the letter.
However, when it comes to Amazon, the group notes that the company has been continually turning deaf ears to the protests and warnings from the consumers, employees, members of Congress, etc, over its facial recognition product. The letter points out that over 150,000 consumers have signed petitions asking Amazon to stop providing Rekognition, its facial recognition service, to governments. Back in October 2018, an anonymous Amazon employee spoke out against Amazon selling Rekognition to the police departments across the world, over a letter.
Similarly, a group of seven House Democrats sent a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos in November 2018, demanding concerns and questions about Rekognition’s possible impact on citizens. Moreover, emails obtained by The Daily Beast in October 2018 showed that officials from Amazon met with ICE to sell its facial recognition technology in June 2018.
“By continuing to sell your face surveillance product to government entities, Amazon is gravely threatening the safety of community members, ignoring the protests of its own workers, and undermining public trust in its business”, states the letter. The letter also notes that Amazon’s inaction towards the concerns related to face surveillance is quite contrasting compared to the actions taken by its competitors (Google and Microsoft).
“We are at a crossroads with face surveillance, and the choices made by these companies now will determine whether the next generation will have to fear being tracked by the government for attending a protest, going to their place of worship, or simply living their lives”, states the letter.