Amazon Says The Government Should Decide Whether It Can Sell Tech To The Government


It’s been a little over a year since an alliance of some 500 Amazon employees first petitioned the company to abandon its contracts with government agencies. Now, the protests are ramping up again. This week, the 2018 petition was recirculated inside Amazon to the We Won’t Build It email list and other employee resource groups in a letter that included demands to stop companies like data firm Palantir that contract directly with ICE from using Amazon Web Services technology, and a pointed call to action: “take a public stand against these human rights violations and make a statement establishing their position against the ICE camps, mass raids, and deportations.”

Sources inside the company told BuzzFeed News it was inspired by recent news reports about the poor conditions in Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers and threats of upcoming deportations.

Amazon, which typically takes a perfunctory view of such employee outcry has so far given no indication that it will reconsider providing services to Palantir and other law enforcement agencies. The company argues instead that the government should determine what constitutes “acceptable use” of technology of the type it sells.

“As we’ve said many times and continue to believe strongly, companies and government organizations need to use existing and new technology responsibly and lawfully,” Amazon said in a statement BuzzFeed News. “There is clearly a need for more clarity from governments on what is acceptable use of AI and ramifications for its misuse, and we’ve provided a proposed legislative framework for this. We remain eager for the government to provide this additional clarity and legislation, and will continue to offer our ideas and specific suggestions.”

Protesters opposed to ICE interrupted an Amazon conference in New York on Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported. On Monday, activists with the same message plan to protest outside Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s new apartment in Manhattan, according to a press release. Monday is Amazon Prime Day, a sales event that in 2018 generated over $4 billion in revenue for the retailer.

It’s worth noting that opposition to government contracts isn’t consistent across all Amazon employees. Following this week’s We Won’t Build It letter, some employees said they won’t oppose selling technology to law enforcement generally; others said they support ICE’s mission of enforcing immigration laws. Debate among some employees over the issue was heated, according to a source inside the company.

Other tech firms, including Google and Microsoft, have also been targets of employee activism overregarding their contracts with government agencies. And Amazon has heard other grievance from its workforce as well; thousands of staffers have signed a petition pressuring the company to take action on climate change, and some of those signatories will join Amazon warehouse workers in a Prime Day strike in Minnesota on Monday.

Read the full text of the employee letter here:

In June 2018, a group of concerned Amazonians sent a letter to JEff Bezos and Andy Jassy, demanding that AWS:

  1. Cease sales of surveillance technology to law enforcement and government agencies

  2. Stop providing infrastructure to Palantir and any other amazon partners who enable ICE, and

  3. Implement strong transparency and accountability measures for the sale and use of our services

Since then, the company has shied away at every opportunity from acknowledging this letter signed by more than 500 employees. When confronted on these questions at a company allhands, Andy Jassy said, “we feel really great and really strongly about the value that Amazon Rekognition is providing our customers of all sizes and types of industries in law enforcement, and out of law enforcement.” More recently, he added that “Just because tech could be misused doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it”, comparing Rekognition to a knife: “you could use a knife in a supperititios way”. As Amazonians, we are told to take Ownership for our work, meaning we “never say ‘that’s not my job’”. Passing the buck on responsibility for the effects of our work is not Ownership.

Our demands have become even more urgent given recent news. The US government has been detaining people, including young children, and concentration camps under horrific conditions. Reports of described extreme overcrowding parentheses one facility was holding 900 people, and a space design for only 125), freezing temperatures (facilities are regularly referred to as “hieleras” or “ice boxes”), and cruelty from guards at these detention centers. When members of Congress visited a facility recently, they learned that detained women were “told by agents to drink from the toilets” if they wanted water. This is a horrifying violation of human rights – and it’s powered by AWS.

Palantir, which runs on AWS services, provides the technical infrastructure used by ICE to collect and process information about people targeted for deportation. A 2016 court disclosure revealed that Enforcement and Removal Operations (ERO), the primary deportation arm of ICE, uses Palantir’s systems to gather information for its cases.

The AWS Acceptable Use Policy states that “any activities that are illegal, that violate the rights of others, or that may be harmful to others, our operations or reputation“ may be grounds to “suspend or terminate“ use of our services.

Palantirdirectly enables ICE to “violate the rights of others“ by powering the deportation processes that are rounding up immigrants and putting them in concentration camps. Additionally, hosting Palantir is “harmful to our reputation“ because it hurts customers trust and leads to negative publicity. By continuing to host Palantir despite clear documentation of ongoing rights abuses that result from their products, AWS is choosing not to enforce its Terms of Service.

AWS has already kicked other customers off the platform for similar violations. WikiLeaks was kicked off for potential he “putting innocent people in jeopardy”. If WikiLeaks cross the line by posting leaked documents (because AWS felt they might contribute to harm), Palantir has certainly cross that line by directly collaborating with an agency that is demonstrably putting vulnerable people in jeopardy.

Workers across industries continue to resist having their labor used to power these abuses and Amazonians are proud to stand with them. Employees at Wayfair have walked out in protest of their companies contract with ICE, while Microsoft and Salesforce employees are organizing to stop their companies respective border contracts. The time to act is now.

We demand that Palantir be removed from AWS for its violation of our terms of service. We called on Amazon to take a public stand against his human rights violations and make a statement establishing the position against the ICE camps, mass raids, and deportations.

The world is watching the abuses in ICE’s concentration camps unfold. We know that our company should, and can, do better.

Join us and calling for a stop to our collaboration with ICE by signing the We Won’t Build It letter.



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