The American Civil Liberties Union is delivering a petition to Amazon’s Seattle headquarters today with more than 150,000 signatures. They are requesting for Amazon to stop providing the government with facial recognition technology.
“Amazon has entered the surveillance business, and they’re selling to the government,” reads the online ACLU petition, which has nearly 60,000 signatures of the 75,000 they want. Other organizations like Demand Progress and Fight for the Future acted in conjunction with the ACLU and collected more than 90,000 signatures elsewhere.
“Amazon’s product, Rekognition, has the power to identify people in real time, in photos of large groups of people, and in crowded events and public places. At a time when we’re joining public protests at unprecedented levels, and discriminatory policing continues to terrorize communities of color, handing this surveillance technology over to the government threatens our civil rights and liberties,” says the petition letter.
This is just the latest step in a series of recent actions that the ACLU has taken against artificial intelligence, especially regarding facial recognition due to privacy concerns and its troubling effects.
It has also specifically warned against Amazon’s push into artificial intelligence, which was how the ACLU discovered that Amazon was contacting different government agencies to see whether they wanted to use Rekognition.
Rekognition is branded by Amazon as affordable deep-learning technology that can constantly learn and recognize different objects — it does not require previous machine learning knowledge to operate.
The technology is so powerful that it has the ability to recognize and identify every face in a crowd, and Nicole Ozer, ACLU of California technology and civil liberties director, said amid a time when communities are under attack and public protest is at an “all-time high,” it is problematic that Amazon is selling technology that is “primed” for surveillance.
“The demand is to stop selling it to the government,” Ozer said. “This demand is not about banning any technology or stopping any technology. But this face surveillance should not be in the hands of the government, particularly in the current political climate.”
Multiple ACLU chapters filed public records requests about Rekognition, and once they discovered Amazon’s government partnerships using Rekognition, the ACLU has fought alongside other advocacy groups like Electronic Frontier Foundation against the corporation’s government partnerships.
They sent a letter to Amazon boss Jeff Bezos last month with 35 other non-ACLU affiliated groups including Human Rights Watch that expressed concern over the e-commerce giant’s role in powering a “government surveillance system.”
They’re sending another letter today (which says the same thing word-for-word), though this time, more than 70 advocacy organizations signed onto it.
Ozer said that Amazon’s undisclosed business deals undermined customer and community trust, since the people being surveilled almost certainly use Amazon.
Florida and Oregon government agencies already use the face recognition technology, and government agencies in Arizona as well as California are seeking more information.
“Those systems should be dismantled,” Ozer said. “In both those communities [Florida and Oregon] there was not public debate or discussion — this was done in secret.”
She said if the ACLU had not filed for the information, there might still not have been community discussions about the governments’ new surveillance methods.
Ozer said that delivering the petition with so many signatures represents the mass outrage over fueling a surveillance state from Amazon’s diverse customer base. Their petition delivery follows letters from 19 Amazon shareholders and the Congressional Black Caucus expressing their concerns over how the company was letting the government weaponize their technology.
But it’s not all bad news. Rekognition is structured as an online service, so Amazon has complete control over who can access the information. That means, she said, the company has the ability to restrict who can access its wide-reaching database.
The goal of the petition is for Amazon to stop sharing the information with the government agencies using Rekognition so that those who are already vulnerable are not put into a more precarious position.
“We only have to read the president’s tweets every hour to know how many communities are under fire,” Ozer said. “Amazon’s face recognition technology is really further powering really dangerous surveillance.”
Amazon did not respond to requests for comment at the time of publishing. We will update this story if and when we get a response.
UPDATE: June 18, 2018, 4:47 p.m. EDT: Amazon has returned our request for an interview, but declined to comment on the story.