Martin Luther King Jr. Offers a Lesson on Why We Should Be Worried About Amazon and the FBI

This was originally published by Rolling Stone.

As FBI director J. Edgar Hoover became increasingly disturbed by the growing political power of the Civil Rights Movement — and paranoid about its possible connections to communists — he directed his agents to step up their surveillance of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hoover’s obsession with King bordered on the fanatical. In his bid to destroy King, the now-disgraced patriarch of the modern FBI went so far as to send information about King’s private sex life to journalists. It didn’t work. Journalists refused to go along with the bureau’s smear campaign, and King went on to secure passage of the Civil Rights Act and win a Nobel Peace Prize.

But Hoover didn’t give up: He sent a now infamous letter to King, describing King’s private sexual activity and encouraging the reverend to kill himself in order to avoid the public embarrassment of the publication of the FBI’s surveillance records.

The FBI’s surveillance of black Americans isn’t just history. Last year, we learned the FBI has been spying on black activists, labeling them “Black Identity Extremists.” The feds also use powers obtained through national security laws like the Patriot Act to target people in the racially biased drug war.

More disturbing: The FBI that spied on King and today classifies Black civil rights activists as “extremists” is now partnering with Big Tech to amass unprecedented surveillance powers that history has taught us will be used to target communities of color, religious minorities, dissidents and immigrants.

In the 1960s, the FBI relied on rudimentary wiretapping systems and photos taken by informants. Now, it’s piloting Rekognition, Amazon’s facial recognition product that the company is aggressively marketing to police and ICE.

This marriage of Amazon’s face-surveillance technology to the FBI’s troves of Big Data about tens of millions of people threatens to supercharge the government’s ability to track and monitor all of us. This is the dystopian future sci-fi novelists warned us about. Imagine a world in which secretive government agencies can track millions of faces — both in real time and through historical video footage — enabling them to identify political protesters, whistleblowers and journalists’ confidential sources.

That nightmare scenario may already exist in skeletal form at the FBI. Since 2015, the bureau has operated a Facial Analysis, Comparison, and Evaluation Services Unit — a.k.a. FACE — that “provides investigative lead support to FBI field offices, operational divisions, and legal attachés” and “may offer face recognition support to federal partners.”

Photographs of half of American adults are likely in the “Interstate Photo System” accessible to the FBI for face recognition searches. And the FBI has also entered into agreements with more than a dozen states, enabling its agents to access driver’s license databases, massively expanding the number of people who are subject to the FBI’s face-recognition surveillance.

The full extent to which the FBI is using face recognition, or could use Amazon’s technology, to track political protesters, identify whistleblowers or engage in other invasive surveillance remains unknown. That’s why we at the ACLU are filing a Freedom of Information Act request demanding the Department of Justice disclose how federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, are using face-recognition technology, and what safeguards, if any, are in place to protect basic rights and liberties.

The FBI’s long-secret harassment of King offers us two lessons. 

The first: Inappropriate government surveillance flourishes behind closed doors. It’s important we fight back against that secrecy and uncover information about what the FBI and other federal law enforcement agencies are doing with these high tech tools.

The second lesson is for companies like Amazon, who are arming the government with new surveillance powers despite warnings from lawmakers, academics, consumers, employees and shareholders. As a coalition of nearly 90 civil rights, racial justice and religious organizations recently warned AmazonGoogle and Microsoft, the choices these companies make 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. 

For the future of our rights and freedoms, companies like Amazon must stop selling facial-recognition technology to the government, and the FBI must come clean about how it is partnering with Big Tech to implement face recognition across the country.

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Anonymous

A fundamental problem is that judges, legislators and voters aren’t allowed to see the entire picture of data. There is no data, no records exist, as to the likely hundreds of thousands of Americans harmed, defamed or suffered premature death due to Cointelpro style blacklisting. Today federal, state and local officials participate in this unconstitutional practice. One way to obtain this data, without invading privacy or revealing methods, is to compare the number of searches/investigations and manpower (in field and remotely) to either criminal convictions or terrorism-convictions. If the conviction rate is less than 50%, we should be demanding to know why (since it indicates blacklisting abuses). Today if you compare warrantless Surveillance and searches to “terrorism-convictions”, the success rate is less than 1/10 of 1%. That means blacklisting harm is happening on a grand scale.

Ms. Gloria Anasyrma

The term "blacklist" should not be used anymore. It is offensive to our African-American brothers and sisters. I suggest we use another color, perhaps purple. The government should not be compiling "purple lists" of people, unless they are members of The Purple Gang.

Anonymous

It’s important to fully understand the origins of warrantless domestic spying. Most warrantless domestic spying, of any given American, likely starts in high school by the children of local police officers. These future cops learn that they have special (illegal) access to spy on classmates, neighbors or anyone outside the police community. The targets of these local police families receive unequal treatment by the local police clique (which is illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment). These targets are more likely to get a speeding ticket, fine or other penalty more than other citizens. Since 9/11, that also means a high school classmate targeted by the local police family is also likely to end up on a “Suspicious Persons List”. After 9/11 some of these lists were uploaded to national and international (INTERPOL) watchlists - for non-crimes and non-wrong-doing. After 9/11, local and state agencies were paid billions of taxpayer dollars to upload those lists to the federal government. The result is nobody wants to rock this gravy-train of federal taxpayer dollars, there are no checks & balances by any level of government or any branch of government. This is a run-away-train without a driver!

Anonymous

It would make a great remake of Barbara Eden's movie "Harper Valley PTA".

Anonymous

you are so right this program needs to be stopped

Anonymous

Cointelpro started in the 1950's, maybe it takes a constitutional amendment to end this evil once and for all.

Anonymous

I see what you mean. The credibility and high standards of the media back then limited the ability to smear Dr Martin Luther King Jr with allegations of his sex life. Nowadays, the media would happily publish every sordid, alleged, detail and add some embellishments of their own in the process.

Anonymous

RING JEFF BEZOS OWNS US ALL.

ClarkKent46

We have always had an all knowing all powerful all encompassing police state. Improvements in technology only make it worse year by year.

John reach

The question is what does it bring to write letters and spend money on bringing amazon, and other tech companies to not sell their technology. Fact is the technologie is or will be there It is obviously clear that every institution dealing with personal data wann have this. And with institutional I mean state and big companies. So even when amazon would agree to that there will be a way of getting the technology in the hands of the “bad guys”.
What we need is a generel banning for state to use that. But they will come with terrorist as a reason. Unfortunately a good reason cause I will like to get rid of them before they kill innocent people. But at what costs for the overal days living?
And the nsa cia is already not allowed to operate on us soil and we all may have the feeling they do. And with a so called president like mr trump they might get even more allowed as ever before.

So where is the right point to spend our money and effort?

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