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

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

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.

Amazon employee: So far it’s been radio silence. There’s been no official response to the letter and certainly no apparent change in how they market Rekognition. Maybe they’re hoping the problem will go away on its own—that if they don’t concede on this, we’ll get discouraged and stop raising our voices in the future. It’s the same tactic they used on the internal campaign to stop advertising on Breitbart.

When Rekognition was first introduced, what percentage of people within Amazon, would you guess, knew about the service? What type of reaction did you get from your colleagues when they found out?

A lot of Amazon Web Services (AWS) people knew about the service, since it was a high-profile launch for them. The rest of the business is often unaware of AWS stuff. But I don’t think most knew it was being sold to police departments. I remember finding out about the service when it was announced and thinking it was actually pretty cool because it could do all sorts of image analysis and object detection, all this really advanced computer-vision stuff with the click of a few buttons. It didn’t occur to me then that it would be sold as a surveillance product, and maybe that was naïveté on my part, but from a lot of colleagues I’ve talked to, that was a pretty common reaction: shock, anger, disappointment.

When ACLU tested Rekognition on a large number of mugshots and got 28 false matches with members of Congress, did you think that was a turning point?

That was a big story externally I think, and it prompted a response on one of the official Amazon blogs. There was also a little chatter about it internally, but I wouldn’t say it was a turning point.

Several other facial-recognition companies have openly said recently their tech isn’t ready for police use and they worry about inaccurate results and the potential for abuse. Do you think those working on this project at Amazon feel the same way? Amazon’s public comments, in contrast to others, have shown no hesitation.

Well, of course the public comments are going to be unrelentingly positive—especially when the people giving the statements are high-level executives and not developers themselves. The fact is, I don’t think this is an issue that low-level workers feel comfortable raising on their teams. At Amazon, one of our “leadership principles” is “disagree and commit.” This is meant to encourage honest criticism and discussion. But it doesn’t seem to apply to ethical issues: As we’ve seen, raising ethical concerns (especially concerns that could hurt the bottom line) gets you essentially stonewalled. And the second part of “disagree and commit” is that no matter how much you disagree, once a decision is made (by your superiors, of course), you have to follow it.

“I’ve personally felt inspired by the various employee actions at Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce.”

Do you see any corollary between Bernie Sanders constantly criticizing Amazon and the company eventually announcing a $15 minimum wage?

There is certainly a common thread to be found. We should remember that while Sanders may have brought the wage issue to the forefront in recent months, this $15-per-hour concession is the result of many former and current workers speaking out and increasing signs of workers’ organizing in warehouses, from Minnesota to Madrid. This win was worker-driven, and I think if we want to be able to change anything at corporate, those efforts will also have to be worker-driven.

Has there been any retribution or fear of retribution among employees who speak out?

I haven’t heard of any retribution yet, but there’s definitely fear, even just to sign this thing that already has hundreds of signatures. And, of course, some people have more to lose than others; I’ve talked to people who are afraid to speak up because if they were fired, it might jeopardize their immigration status. Fear isn’t unfounded; it should be taken seriously, but it’s also something we can work through together. We have each other’s backs.

What do you think Amazon will do next?

It’s hard to say. We just have to keep working, keep building a network of people who care about this, and keep fighting. Maybe we won’t win the demands of the letter in the short term, but if we keep working together, we can build lasting power.

How do you see this campaign with other recent protests among employees at major tech companies? Do you feel like this is part of a larger movement in the industry?

Definitely. I’ve personally felt inspired by the various employee actions at Google, Microsoft, and Salesforce, just to name a few, and I’m sure a lot of us share that inspiration. I think it’s clear this is just the beginning of a movement for more employee control of what gets built and for whom. There are going to be a lot of battles we won’t win at first, but there are also some great examples of success already, like the Maven contract cancellation at Google. We just have to keep building for the long term.

Why are you anonymous?

The first reason is safety. The Second reason is that this isn’t about me—I can’t claim to represent every signer of the letter or supporter of the campaign. But I hope I have at least spoken for some of us and that my perspective on the campaign is shared by others.

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.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store