Pressure Mounts on Amazon, Microsoft, and Google Against Selling Facial Recognition to Government

Nationwide Coalition of over 85 Groups Urges Companies Commit Not to Provide Face Surveillance to the Government

January 15, 2019 8:30 am

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NEW YORK — A coalition of over 85 racial justice, faith, and civil, human, and immigrants’ rights groups today sent letters to Microsoft, Amazon, and Google demanding the companies commit not to sell face surveillance technology to the government.

The coalition makes it clear to each company that a decision to provide face surveillance technology to the government threatens the safety of community members and will also undermine public trust in its business.

“Companies can’t continue to pretend that the ‘break then fix’ approach works,” said Nicole Ozer, Technology and Civil Liberties director for the ACLU of California. “History has clearly taught us that the government will exploit technologies like face surveillance to target communities of color, religious minorities, and immigrants. 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.”

The coalition also notes in its letters that face surveillance “gives the government new power to target and single out immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color in our communities” and that “systems built on face surveillance will amplify and exacerbate historical and existing bias.” Acknowledging both employee and shareholder calls for corporate change, the coalition reiterates that it is time for these companies to take responsibility for the impact of their technology on the privacy and safety of communities and commit not to sell face surveillance to the government.

“In 2018, groups representing Muslims, African-Americans, immigrants, incarcerated Japanese-Americans, and more met with Amazon and Microsoft to share firsthand stories of the impacts of targeted surveillance on these communities,” said Shankar Narayan, Technology and Liberty Project director of the ACLU of Washington in Seattle. “The groups urged Microsoft and Amazon to not sell face surveillance technology to government entities, because doing so will supercharge a long history of impacts on those communities. All of these companies should heed that clear message — they owe it to society, their customers, their shareholders, and the diverse communities represented by this coalition.”

The letters come as executives from Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have all spoken publicly about facial recognition technology, revealing an industry at odds on how to respond to concerns raised about government use of such technology.

Google recently announced that it will not sell a face surveillance product until the technology’s dangers are addressed, with its CEO Sundar Pichai warning the tech industry that with artificial intelligence, you “just can’t build it and then fix it.” The coalition today welcomed Google’s decision, and called on the company to fully commit to not release a facial recognition product that could be used by government.

Microsoft President Brad Smith also recently acknowledged the risks associated with face surveillance and the company’s obligation to act internally to address potential harms. The coalition commended Smith’s acknowledgement of the technology’s harms, but noted that the company’s proposed measures to prevent such harms were “wholly inadequate.” The groups added that Microsoft has a “responsibility to do more than speak about ethical principles; it must also act in accordance with those principles.”

Amazon, meanwhile, has doubled down on efforts to sell facial recognition technology to government, despite continued warnings from consumers, employees, members of Congress, and shareholders. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos acknowledged his company’s products might be put to “bad uses,” but said the solution was to wait for society’s eventual “immune response” to take care of the problems. Further, recent reports revealed that the FBI is piloting the use of Rekognition, Amazon’s face surveillance product, and that Amazon recently met with ICE officials about its face surveillance product.

In its letter to Amazon, the coalition notes that “Amazon’s inaction in response to widespread concerns about face surveillance stands in contrast to the steps taken by its competitors” and that “it is wholly irresponsible to wait for society to develop an ‘immune response’ to technologies like face surveillance.”

The ACLU revealed last year that Amazon has been actively marketing its face surveillance technology to law enforcement and helping them deploy it. On July 26, 2018, the ACLU also released results of a test showing that Rekognition falsely matched 28 current members of Congress with images in an arrest photo database. Congressional members of color were disproportionately identified incorrectly, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The release of the documents and test results spurred a nationwide movement in protest of government use of face surveillance and resulted in over 150,000 petition signatures, a coalition letter signed by nearly 70 organizations representing communities nationwide, and a letter from Amazon’s shareholders and employees demanding the company stop providing face surveillance technology to governments. Members of Congress also wrote to Amazon with civil rights concerns and questions about the sale of Rekognition to law enforcement, and requested information from federal agencies about the use of this technology.

List of organizations that signed today’s letters to Amazon, Google, and Microsoft demanding that the companies commit not to sell face surveillance technology to the government:

ACLU Foundations of California
ACLU of Massachusetts
ACLU of Washington
New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU)
Access Now
ALIGN: The Alliance for a Greater New York
American Friends Service Committee
American Muslim Empowerment Network-Muslim Association of Puget Sound
American Muslims of Puget Sound
Arab American Institute
Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC
Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Asian Law Caucus
CAIR San Francisco Bay Area
Californians United for a Responsible Budget
Campaign for Accountability
Casa Latina
Center for Media Justice
Center on Policy Initiatives
Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice
Color Of Change
Council on American Islamic Relations, Massachusetts
Council on American-Islamic Relations, California
CREDO Action
Data for Black Lives
Defending Rights & Dissent
Demand Progress
El Centro de la Raza
Electronic Frontier Foundation
End Solitary Santa Cruz County
Entre Hermanos
Fair Chance Project
Families for Justice as Healing
Families Belong Together
Fight for the Future
Free Press
Freedom for Immigrants
Freedom of the Press Foundation
Government Accountability Project
Government Information Watch
Grassroots Collaborative
Harrington Investments, Inc.
Harvard Law School National Lawyers Guild
Human Rights Watch
Immigrant Defense Project
Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility
International Committee for Robot Arms Control
John T. Williams Organizing Committee
Justice for Muslims Collective
LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy)
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Library Freedom Project
Lucy Parsons Labs
Make the Road New York
Media Alliance
Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee of Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Muslim Justice League
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Immigration Law Center
National Immigration Project of the NLG
National Lawyers Guild – New York City Chapter
National Lawyers Guild – Massachusetts Chapter
New Economy Project
New York Communities for Change
Oakland Privacy
OCCORD (Orange County Communities Organized For Responsible Development)
Our Revolution Arlington
Partnership for Working Families
Policing and Social Justice Project at Brooklyn College
Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project
Restore The Fourth
Silicon Valley Rising
Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood
Starting Over, Inc.
Tenth Amendment Center
The Greenlining Institute
The Legal Aid Society (NYC)
The Project on Government Oversight
Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment
Unitarian Universalist Mass Action
War Resisters League
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom

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