Oversight

‘Shock, Anger, Disappointment’: An Amazon Employee Speaks Out

The company’s controversial face recognition software is being used by police

Trevor Timm
GEN
Published in
5 min readOct 16, 2018

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Photo: picture alliance/Getty

In June, more than 100 Amazon employees signed a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos, strongly protesting the company’s push to sell its controversial facial recognition software, known as “Rekognition,” to local police departments around the country. The letter has now been signed by more than 450 employees, and an Amazon employee published an anonymous op-ed with Medium detailing their concerns.

Rekognition has made headlines for months, as civil liberties groups have called on Amazon to stop selling the software to police departments because of the extreme privacy and civil liberties concerns that accompany the technology. In August, the ACLU uploaded 10,000 mugshots into the software and cross-referenced photos of each of the 535 members of Congress. The results yielded 28 false matches, a disproportionate number of whom were African-American.

Instead of heeding to the criticism, Amazon doubled down, saying the company has “unwavering” support for law enforcement and military uses of its products. (Amazon signed a $600 million contract with the CIA in 2014 to provide it with cloud hosting. It also seems to be the leading candidate to win an upcoming $10-billion cloud-storage contract with the Pentagon—the same contract Google just stopped competing for after employee revolt.)

I spoke with the Amazon employee who wrote the op-ed. This person, who has spoken with me on the condition that their name not be revealed for fear of professional retribution, has significant concerns about Rekognition being used and abused by police departments around the country.

“This is just the beginning of a movement for more employee control of what gets built and for whom.”

Trevor Timm: What has Amazon’s response been internally to the letter? The company has known about employee concerns for at least a few months now.

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Trevor Timm
GEN
Writer for

Trevor Timm is the executive director of Freedom of the Press Foundation. His writing has appeared the New York Times, the Guardian, and the Intercept.