An Open Letter to Amazon Shareholders

The company’s shareholders have it within their power to stop Amazon’s deployment of its invasive face surveillance technology, Rekognition.

To Amazon shareholders:

Before you are two shareholder proposals concerning Amazon’s face recognition surveillance technology. Your vote on these proposals will help chart the course for the kind of society we’ll have to live in, and whether that society will be forced to suffer under continuous, inescapable, and dangerous government surveillance.

The first proposal would ask the Board of Directors to stop sales of “Rekognition” — Amazon’s face surveillance technology — to the government. The second would require an independent review of its human and civil rights impacts, particularly for people of color, immigrants, and activists, who have always been disproportionately impacted by surveillance.

Amazon has shown it will not voluntarily act to prevent the deployment of this dangerous technology, posing a material risk to the company’s business reputation and the public’s trust. This product threatens the safety and civil rights of people everywhere.

Do you own Amazon shares? Click here to vote on the proposals by 1:00 a.m. ET, Wednesday, May 22, 2019.

A unified chorus of civil rights organizations, AI experts, customers, Amazon employees, academics, impacted communities, and members of Congress has warned about the dangers of government face surveillance and the company’s product, Rekognition. This week, San Francisco legislators voted to ban the deployment of face surveillance. This historic victory was the result of the work of a coalition, led by the ACLU of Northern California, that called on the City to prevent the deployment of this dangerous technology. And nearly two-thirds of likely 2020 voters oppose technology companies providing face surveillance to government agencies.

Against these voices stands Amazon.

Echoing these concerns, your fellow shareholders elevated this issue to Amazon’s boardroom. We concur with the views of those behind these proposals and urge you to vote for both.
 
 Interested in adding your name to this open letter? Sign on here to urge shareholders to protect our civil rights.

Face surveillance technology threatens Amazon’s business reputation by linking the company to a practice that is facing sustained criticism from lawmakers, civil society, and consumers. Without shareholder action, Amazon may soon become known more for its role in facilitating pervasive government surveillance than for its consumer retail operations. But more than that, aggressive marketing of face surveillance technology to law enforcement presents an unprecedented threat to our civil liberties and privacy, and it is incompatible with a healthy democracy.

This technology fundamentally alters the balance of power between government and individuals, arming governments with unprecedented power to track, control, and harm people. It would enable police to instantaneously and automatically determine the identities and locations of people going about their daily lives, allowing government agencies to routinely track their own residents. Associated software may even display dangerous and likely inaccurate information to police about a person’s emotions or state of mind.

As shown by a long history of other surveillance technologies, face surveillance is certain to be disproportionately aimed at immigrants, religious minorities, people of color, activists, and other vulnerable communities. The dangers of government face surveillance can only be fully addressed by stopping its use.

Multiple expert researchers, led by Joy Buolamwini, have pointed out that Rekognition suffers from significant bias, including high misidentification rates for people of color and women. But regardless of its accuracy, putting this technology in government hands creates an unacceptable risk of exacerbating racial disparities in arrests, imprisonment, and even police use of force. Yet, Amazon not only continues to make this technology widely available, they are enabling some of the most rights-concerning uses.

Multiple studies and the lived experience of impacted communities demonstrate that face surveillance will amplify biased police practices and increase dangerous encounters between law enforcement and communities of color.

Amazon knows this.

But Amazon continues to sell its product to police. It also refuses to disclose which agencies have purchased it and how they are using it. We know because we’ve asked.

In December 2018, our coalition of community leaders met directly with Amazon leadership to highlight concerns around Rekognition in light of a long history of impacts of surveillance technology on their communities.

Amazon didn’t listen.

When the ACLU tested Rekognition by scanning the faces of Congress people against a mugshot database, the system produced 28 false matches that were disproportionately people of color. Multiple members of Congress sent their concerns and questions directly to Jeff Bezos. All the while, Amazon has refused to provide meaningful answers to Congressional inquiries, including basic information about the company’s government customers.

Amazon has failed to act responsibly.

But this issue is not going to go away. Whatever the outcome of this vote, lawmakers are hearing the alarm bells and acting to prevent its use by governments. The public and numerous experts oppose its sale to governments. Meanwhile, Amazon won’t even require its own customers to follow paltry company rules.

Amazon leadership has failed to recognize these issues. This failure will lead to real-life harm.

You, as shareholders, have the power to protect Amazon from its own failed judgment, and to safeguard against what is perhaps the most dangerous surveillance technology ever developed.

We urge you to act.