Immigrant rights groups in New York are outraged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement met with Amazon over the summer to discuss its facial recognition surveillance software, Rekognition. The technology can pick out faces in a crowd by scanning video feeds.
Details of the meeting were obtained by the Project on Government Oversight and published last month in the Daily Beast.
ICE did not agree to purchase the product at that time. But immigration advocates say they are deeply worried that Amazon and ICE could still collaborate. They say facial recognition software will make it even easier for ICE to deport immigrants.
“As a corporation to be facilitating and enabling that deportation machine, and then profiting off of it, is not acceptable in this day and age,” said Deborah Axt, co-executive director of Make the Road New York.
Axt acknowledged that Make the Road is largely focused on other aspects of Amazon’s move, notably gentrification, the impact on immigrant businesses and jobs. Queens is 47.5 percent foreign born, according to the U.S. Census.
Amazon did not reply to a request for comment about any future collaborations with ICE.
In June, Gizmodo reported that Amazon employees circulated an internal letter to CEO Jeff Bezos asking him to stop selling the company’s Rekognition facial recognition software to law enforcement. They also objected to letting the data-mining firm Palantir use Amazon’s cloud services because of its contract with ICE.
The employees cited the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of separating migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Concern about Silicon Valley’s role in law enforcement has been an issue on the West Coast, but now that Amazon is preparing to move to Queens, immigration advocates believe the issue will also resonate in New York.
One group, Mijente, bills itself as a national Latinx organization that’s spoken out against Amazon and the use of its facial recognition technology by law enforcement. (“Latinx” is a gender-neutral term to describe both Latinas and Latinos.) Organizer Jacinta Gonzalez said the tech giant deserves more scrutiny.
“I think part of the issue is that they have been very unapologetic about how their technologies are being used, not only by ICE but other police departments against low-income communities and communities of color,” she said.
The ACLU has said Amazon’s Rekognition software could be used to target anyone considered suspicious by a police department or government agency, from black activists to undocumented immigrants. It also claimed it’s especially prone to errors when identifying people of color. Amazon criticized the ACLU’s methodology. It also defended its software by stating it isn’t the only factor when police identify suspects, and that it can be helpful in finding abducted victims.
In New York, immigrant rights groups said they’re just starting to discuss Amazon and ICE.
“There has been engagement about Amazon’s cooperation with ICE by several member-based organizations,” said Michele Lampach, executive director of the non-profit Unlocal, which gives legal help to immigrants. “While broadly speaking, we do not support Amazon moving their headquarters here, to the extent that they do ultimately succeed in their efforts, at a minimum New York City should demand that they abandon their partnership with ICE, simply because we are an immigrant city and should not be supporting efforts by ICE to separate families and destroy our communities.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.