Tech companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce are taking a stand against systemic racism, but their work with law enforcement could contradict their stances
Tech companies have made public statements condemning systemic racism as protests seek racial justice and an end to police brutality. But some of those same companies, including Amazon and Microsoft, provide technology to police departments, which disproportionately target Black and brown communities. "People are looking to companies for more than pretty words," one expert said. "People are looking for action at a company level. Companies need to rethink their contracts and hiring practices and who are they making products for." Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
Tech companies have made public statements taking a stand against systemic racism amid nationwide protests calling for an end to police brutality, but many of these same companies provide technology to law enforcement agencies that disproportionately target communities of color. Studies have shown that Black people are more likely to be stopped, searched, or killed by police, systemic problems which have led to current calls for defunding. Meanwhile, companies like Amazon and Microsoft provide surveillance technology to police departments, which experts say can make existing issues worse. For example, Amazon's facial recognition software has been found to contain biases, like misidentifying people with darker skin tones. When tools like facial recognition and surveillance software are put in the hands of policing systems, it can be dangerous for Black and brown communities, says Myaisha Hayes, campaign strategies director at MediaJustice. "It's a huge problem for communities of color who are disproportionately targeted by the police," Hayes told Business Insider. "It's been a moment to open up the conversation and think about — if you're going to stand out and share a pledge and say you're in support of the movement — how their own business drives and fuels the racism and discrimination we see in our communities." Immigration reform activists have also criticized Salesforce, Palantir, GitHub, and Microsoft for having contracts with agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which they say are creating inhuman conditions for detained immigrants. Both ICE and CBP have been sending staff to assist law enforcement during the protests.
There isn't enough transparency and oversight into how law enforcement uses technology to police communities of color advocates say. Organizations have put together campaigns to ask companies to cut ties with police and ICE and pledges to mitigate abuse of facial analysis technology. Employees themselves are joining in: protesting, writing open letters, or in some cases, resigning over their company's work with agencies like ICE and CBP. "We should not continue to invest in technologies and surveillance tactics that are harming communities and actually taking away from resources where we need to invest them," Jacinta Gonzalez, field director at Mijente, told Business Insider. "Until there's a framework that will actually protect people, we will never have a way to use these technologies in a way that's not creating harm." If companies are using data for their technology, they need to use it in a way that protects user privacy, says Renee Murphy, principal analyst at Forrester. She adds that there needs to be more regulation on how data is used, as well as to make sure artificial intelligence doesn't discriminate. Murphy says that if companies work with police or agencies like ICE, it can impact their brand, since customers may choose not to do business with them if it's against their values. "It's called 'collective bargaining in the age of the customer,'" she said. "The people who buy from them are going to say, 'enough is enough.'" While many tech companies are making statements about committing to racial justice and matching employee donations, people are looking for more than just "lip service" right now, says Sasha Costanza-Chock, associate professor of civic media at MIT. "There's a long history of structural racism," Costanza-Chock said. "People are looking to companies for more than pretty words. People are looking for action at a company level. Companies need to rethink their contracts and hiring practices and who are they making products for."SEE ALSO: The tech industry has a terrible track record on diversity. Here's how 17 companies that spoke out against racism this week say they plan to improve. Amazon Web Services
Amazon Web Services sells facial recognition software called Rekognition to police departments across the country. Critics fear that facial recognition technology will lead to excessive surveillance, particularly in communities that already deal with discrimination. Studies have also revealed potential bias in the software itself: A study from MIT Media Lab researchers in 2019 found Rekognition had difficulty in identifying gender in darker-skinned faces and female faces. The American Civil Liberties Union found in 2018 that the software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with people who have been arrested for a crime, and that false matches were disproportionately of people of color. The ACLU, which conducted an earlier study, has called on Amazon to stop selling the software to law enforcement. AWS CEO Andy Jassy has in the past defended marketing Rekognition immigration and law-enforcement agencies, arguing the company's terms of service would prevent its software from being used for bad purposes. However, Jassy revealed in a recent interview that the company isn't aware of how police are using it, or even how many police departments even have access. As Amazon and Jassy himself made statements against police brutality and systemic racism this week, some workers slammed the company for supporting the George Floyd protesters while still promoting Rekognition to police. Amazon Ring
Ring as of February partnered with more than 600 police departments across country to enable officers to request video footage from people's Ring devices in the area of a suspected crime. Some police departments even hand out free Ring cameras to local households. Ring customers have the ability to approve or deny those requests, but police can still send a warrant to force Ring to turn over the footage. A Vice investigation in 2019 found users of Amazon's Neighbors crime reporting app, used with Ring, disproportionately report people of color as "suspicious," while descriptions often use racist language. Earlier this year, US lawmakers asked Amazon to provide more information about its partnerships with police departments including specific agreements, police requests for Ring data, and internal documents related to Ring's role in police investigations. Amazon did not respond to a request about Ring's work with police departments or whether it plans to make any changes to those relationships. GitHub
GitHub has a contract with ICE that CEO Nat Friedman has defended. In an email to employees in late 2019, he said the company wouldn't block the contract when it came up for renewal. GitHub can't be responsible for what its customers use its products and services for, he wrote, even though it opposes the current administration on immigration policies like family separation at the border and ending DACA. In response, open source developers and over 150 employees wrote letters opposing it, several employees resigned, and activists from outside organizations protested at GitHub's annual conference. On May 30, Friedman tweeted about the week being "a horrifying, sad reminder of the centuries-long pattern of systemic racism in the US" and that the criminal justice system "is in dire need of reform." His tweet received a host of replies asking whether the company would drop its contract with ICE; GitHub did not respond to a request for comment. Google
Google's data collection and tracking practices have enabled "geofence" warrants, wherein police can request large swathes of data from Android or iPhone smartphones that have Google location history turned on in an area around where a crime took place. The company uses an in-house database called Sensorvault to cooperate with law enforcement and provide location records and other data: It initially sends de-identified information, and once will only provide users' names and other relevant information once police have narrowed down their request to a few devices for suspects or witnesses. While technology companies have long responded to court orders for specific users' information, geofence warrants go a step beyond those requests, because police are asking for information from an entire geographic area, not a specific person. They may potentially receive data from dozens, or even hundreds, of devices near a crime scene that have nothing to do with any crime, which privacy advocates say is a dangerous overstep. (Apple has said it does not have the ability to perform searches for law enforcement in the same way as Google does.) Since this is broader than the typical data request, Google has developed its own process to deal with these asks. "We vigorously protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement," Richard Salgado, Director of Law Enforcement and Information Security at Google, said in a statement. "We developed a process specifically for these requests that is designed to honor our legal obligations while narrowing the scope of data disclosed." Microsoft
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called on the company to use its position and resources to drive systemic change in light of national protests against policy brutality and systemic racism. He called out Microsoft's work on an initiative it launched in 2019 intended to drive reforms in policing. But the company has come under fire in the past for its work with law enforcement agencies. In March, immigrant rights groups and some Microsoft workers asked tech companies to stop sharing their technologies with Immigration and Customs Enforcement as the agency conducted raids during the coronavirus crisis. Nadella has previously downplayed the company's work with ICE. Meanwhile, Microsoft partners with the New York Police Department on a surveillance product called Domain Awareness System, which gathers data from detection devices including cameras and license plate readers to, as Microsoft has said, provide "NYPD investigators and analysts with a comprehensive view of potential threats and criminal activity." Microsoft said it had "nothing to share" in response to a request about its relationship with law enforcement agencies such as ICE and police departments, and whether it plans to continue them in light of the national conversation on racial bias in policing. Microsoft recently divested from Israeli facial recognition company AnyVision after it was accused of violating public statements about ethical standards for facial recognition technology. Microsoft didn't say whether AnyVision violated the standards, but that the company realized it could not give adequate oversight to the sensitive technology. Palantir
The secretive, 16-year-old big data company Palantir, which was rumored to be preparing to go public last year, does much of its business with government and law enforcement agencies around the world, including the NYPD, the Department of Defense, and the FBI. Immigration activist group Mijente has found that ICE has used Palantir's technology in workplace raids to arrest undocumented immigrants. In addition, it's been used to gather, store, and search for data on undocumented immigrants. Despite protests from employees within the company, as well as outside activists last August, Palantir renewed a contract with ICE for the next three years that is worth nearly $50 million. Because of Palantir's work with ICE, students at top schools have pledged to not work at Palantir, tech conferences have dropped Palantir as a sponsor. Palantir did not put out a statement in regards to the ongoing protests, and it did not respond to Business Insider's request for comment. Salesforce
After Salesforce said in 2018 that it was working with US Customs and Border Protection to "drive efficiencies around how US border activities are managed, and handle feedback from citizens across a variety of channels," more than 650 employees sent an email to CEO Marc Benioff criticizing that work. They asked that he "re-examine our contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices." Benioff ultimately decided to keep the contract in place, and instituted an internal ethics team to weigh in on similar decisions in the future. Salesforce did not respond to a request about its work with the agency. Zoom
During the company's earnings call in early June, CEO Eric Yuan discussed how Zoom would be adding end-to-end encryption — a type of security that makes it impossible for third parties to eavesdrop on communication — for paid and enterprise users, but not for people on its free plan. Yuan said this was because "we also want to work together with FBI, with local law enforcement, in case some people use Zoom for a bad purpose." This drew criticism from some users in the midst of ongoing protests nationwide against police brutality, and some even said they would stop using Zoom. Zoom offers free and paid users a lower level of encryption called AES 256 GCM which encrypts data, but can still be decrypted if law enforcement demands it (unlike end-to-end encryption, which even Zoom cannot decrypt). A Zoom spokesperson shared that it would not share information with law enforcement except in circumstances like child sex abuse. On May 30, Yuan also shared a statement on the ongoing protests. Here is the full statement from a Zoom spokesperson:
Zoom's AES 256 GCM encryption is turned on for all Zoom users — free and paid. Zoom does not proactively monitor meeting content, and we do not share information with law enforcement except in circumstances like child sex abuse. We do not have backdoors where anyone can enter meetings without being visible to others. None of this will change. Zoom's end-to-end encryption plan balances the privacy of its users with the safety of vulnerable groups, including children and potential victims of hate crimes. We plan to provide end-to-end encryption to users for whom we can verify identity, thereby limiting harm to these vulnerable groups. Free users sign up with an email address, which does not provide enough information to verify identity. The current decision by Zoom's management is to offer end-to-end encryption to business and enterprise tiers. We are determining the best path forward for providing end-to-end encryption to our Pro users. Zoom has engaged with child safety advocates, civil liberties organizations, encryption experts, and law enforcement to incorporate their feedback into our plan. Finding the perfect balance is challenging. We always strive to do the right thing.
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