Amazon employees angered by the company’s commercial ties to law enforcement agencies are hoping to ramp up pressure on management at the company’s all-staff meeting on Thursday.
A group of company workers who signed an open letter to CEO Jeff Bezos this summer denouncing the company’s sale of facial recognition software to the police are encouraging their colleagues to submit questions on the topic in the hope of having them addressed by Bezos or other top Amazon executives.
For years, Amazon allowed employees to ask questions in person at these semiannual gatherings, but the company has instituted a new policy requiring that all questions be submitted in advance of Thursday’s meeting. A spokesperson said the change was designed to give every employee worldwide a chance to ask questions — not just those who can attend in Seattle. This is the first Amazon all-staff meeting that will be livestreamed globally.
“We know that the questions are now pre-screened, but we think that if enough people submit questions, there is a greater chance we can hold leadership accountable,” an Amazon employee wrote to colleagues in an email that was viewed by Recode. “Write your own personal message, or copy/paste this one if you don’t have time: ‘Why is Amazon continuing to support ICE’s regime of deportation, and even offering to sell them facial recognition software?’”
Amazon spokesperson Kathleen Rohde sent the following comment:
“We participated with a number of other technology companies in technology ‘boot camps’ sponsored by McKinsey Company, where a number of technologies were discussed, including Rekognition. As we usually do, we followed up with customers who were interested in learning more about how to use our services (Immigration and Customs Enforcement was one of those organizations where there was follow-up discussion).”
In the past year, Amazon has faced controversy over some uses of its AI-powered facial recognition product, Rekognition. The technology has been marketed as a surveillance tool that can be used to monitor faces in group photos, crowded events and public places such as airports, and run those images for matches against mugshot databases.
In June, hundreds of Amazon employees signed a letter — titled “We Won’t Build It” — asking Amazon to stop selling Rekognition to the police, citing “historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of Black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses.”
The group also decried the company’s commercial relationship with the data firm Palantir, which does business with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. This summer, Amazon also reportedly pitched its Rekognition technology directly to the ICE, a few months after the federal immigration agency started enforcing President Trump’s controversial zero-tolerance family-separation border policy, according to public documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight.
The ACLU previously raised concerns about Rekognition’s potential misuse for racial profiling after the organization ran a test and found that the software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress, identifying them as other people who have been arrested for a crime — and that the false matches disproportionately involved people of color, including six members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
The employee-led movement to limit Amazon’s business with police and the ICE is part of a broader “We Won’t Build It” movement by tech workers who are demanding to stop what they feel are morally questionable uses of their companies’ software. Employees at Microsoft, Salesforce and Google have taken similarly vocal positions in the past year.
“Tech workers make a lot of money and have a lot of power in the job market, but scratch that surface and underneath there’s a huge amount of fear,” one Amazon employee wrote to Recode on Monday. “The fact that over 400 people have signed the letter at Amazon, that Microsoft and Salesforce employees have taken action as well, and even the 20,000 Googlers who walked out last week over sexual harassment, shows others who may be thinking about speaking up that when we stand together they can’t stop us.”
Neither Bezos nor Amazon company executives have given a formal response to the employees who make up the “We Won’t Build It” group. But Bezos defended his company’s defense contracts with the U.S. government at a recent tech conference, while acknowledging the potential for misuse with any technology.
“If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the U.S. Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble,” said Bezos, speaking at a Wired conference last month, adding that, “One of the jobs of the senior leadership team is to make the right decision, even when it’s unpopular.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.