4 min read

An Amazon employee has spoken out against Amazon selling its facial recognition technology, named, Rekognition to the police departments across the world, over a letter. The news of Amazon selling its facial recognition technology to the police first came out in May this year.

Earlier this week, Jeff Bezos spoke at the WIRED25 Summit regarding the use of technology to help the Department of Defense, “we are going to continue to support the DoD, and I think we should, The last thing we’d ever want to do is stop the progress of new technologies, If big tech companies are going to turn their back on US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble”.

Soon after a letter got published yesterday, on Medium, by an anonymous Amazon employee, whose identity was verified offline by the Medium editorial team. It read, “A couple weeks ago, my co-workers delivered a letter to this effect, signed by over 450 employees, to Jeff Bezos and other executives. We know Bezos is aware of these concerns… he acknowledged that big tech’s products might be misused, even exploited, by autocrats. But rather than meaningfully explain how Amazon will act to prevent the bad uses of its own technology, Bezos suggested we wait for society’s immune response”.

The letter also laid out the employee’s demands to kick off Palantir, the software firm powering ICE’s deportation and tracking program, from Amazon Web Services along with the need to initiate employee oversight for ethical decisions within the company. It also clearly states that their concern is not regarding the harm that can be caused by some company in the future. Instead, it is about the fact that Amazon is “designing, marketing, and selling a system for mass surveillance right now”. In fact, Rekognition is already being used by law enforcement with zero debate or restrictions on its use from Amazon. For instance, Orlando, Florida, has currently put Rekognition to test with live video feeds from surveillance cameras around the city.

Rekognition is a deep-learning based service which is capable of storing and searching tens of millions of faces at a time.  It allows detection of objects, scenes, activities and inappropriate content. Amazon had also received criticism from the ACLU regarding selling rekognition to cops as it said that, “People should be free to walk down the street without being watched by the government. By automating mass surveillance, facial recognition systems like Rekognition threaten this freedom, posing a particular threat to communities already unjustly targeted in the current political climate. Once powerful surveillance systems like these are built and deployed, the harm will be extremely difficult to undo.”

Amazon had been quick to defend at that time and said in a statement emailed to various news organizations that, “Our quality of life would be much worse today if we outlawed new technology because some people could choose to abuse the technology. Imagine if customers couldn’t buy a computer because it was possible to use that computer for illegal purposes? Like any of our AWS services, we require our customers to comply with the law and be responsible when using Amazon Rekognition.”

The protest by Amazon employees is over the same concern as ACLU’s. Giving Rekognition in the hands of the government puts the privacy of the people at stake as people won’t be able to go about their lives without being constantly monitored by the government. “Companies like ours should not be in the business of facilitating authoritarian surveillance. Not now, not ever. But Rekognition supports just that by pulling dozens of facial IDs from a single frame of video and storing them for later use or instantly comparing them with databases of millions of pictures. We cannot profit from a subset of powerful customers at the expense of our communities; we cannot avert our eyes from the human cost of our business”, mentions the letter.

The letter also points out that Rekognition is not accurate in its ability to identify people and is a “flawed technology” that is more likely to “misidentify people” with darker skin tone. For instance, Rekognition was earlier this year put to test with pictures of Congress members compared against a collection of mugshots. The result was 28 false matches with incorrect results being higher for people of color. This makes it irresponsible, unreliable and unethical of the government to use Rekognition.

“We will not silently build technology to oppress and kill people, whether in our country or in others. Amazon talks a lot about values of leadership. If we want to lead, we need to make a choice between people and profits. We can sell dangerous surveillance systems to police or we can stand up for what’s right. We can’t do both”, reads the letter.

For more information, check out the official letter by Amazon employees.

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Tech writer at the Packt Hub. Dreamer, book nerd, lover of scented candles, karaoke, and Gilmore Girls.