Thursday, 18 October 2018 08:45

Amazon employee asks Bezos to decide between 'people and profits'

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Amazon employee asks Bezos to decide between 'people and profits' Pixabay

An anonymous Amazon employee has called on the company's leadership to stop selling its facial recognition software, Rekognition, to law enforcement bodies in the US because it "runs counter to Amazon's stated values".

In a post published on Medium — which said it had verified that the author was indeed an Amazon worker — the employee said history had provided enough lessons that powerful surveillance tools left unchecked in the hands of the state would be used to target people who had done no wrong.

In June, a group of Amazon workers wrote to their chief executive, Jeff Bezos, telling him not to sell Rekognition to law enforcement agencies and to cancel the contract for hosting data-mining company Palantir on its cloud.

Else, they said they would refuse to build the platform that powers the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement and would not contribute to tools that they claim violates human rights.

The lone employee said that Bezos was aware of the concerns around Rekognition but had said that he preferred to wait for society's "immune response".

"If Amazon waits, we think the harm will be difficult to undo," the post said. "After all, our concern isn’t one about some future harm caused by some other company: Amazon is designing, marketing, and selling a system for dangerous mass surveillance right now."

The employee pointed out that Orlando was testing Rekognition with live video feeds while a sheriff's department in Oregon was using the software to compare photos to a database of mugshots.

In the US, a lack of public accountability had resulted in over-policing of communities of colour, immigrants and people exercising their First Amendment rights, the post said, adding, "Ignoring these urgent concerns while deploying powerful technologies to government and law enforcement agencies is dangerous and irresponsible."

The employee pointed out that there had been cases of false positives. As iTWire  reported, a test by the American Civil Liberties Union found that Rekognition identified a number of US politicians as criminals.

"We follow in the steps of the Googlers who spoke out against the Maven contract and Microsoft employees who are speaking out against the JEDI contract," the post said.

"Regardless of our views on the military, no one should be profiting from 'increasing the lethality' of the military. 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."


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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