Retail super-behemoth Amazon has its fingers in a lot of pies. One of them is biometric technology, and that has employees concerned that they are helping to construct an ultra-invasive surveillance state.
An anonymous Amazon employee posted an essay on Medium.com calling out the company for selling facial-recognition technology to federal government and local police departments. The “Rekognition” software is being created to automatically sort through live video feeds and identify wanted criminals. This has civil libertarians in an uproar.
Big Brother, Incorporated?
“Companies like ours should not be in the business of facilitating authoritarian surveillance. Not now, not ever,” the employee wrote in his essay. He noted that 450 Amazon employees have signed on to a June letter addressed to founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, calling on the company to cease work on all such projects.
Privacy concerns for U.S. citizens are a noble consideration. Unfortunately, the Amazon protesters weaken their message by dragging identity politics and pro-illegal immigration sentiments into the fray. The anonymous employee, targeting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), throws this bit of ill-digested social justice tripe into his essay:
“We know from history that new and powerful surveillance tools left unchecked in the hands of the state have been used to target people who have done nothing wrong; in the United States, a lack of public accountability already results in outsized impacts and over-policing of communities of color, immigrants, and people exercising their First Amendment rights.”
The employee letter sent to Bezos echoes these shallow politically correct talking points. “We refuse to build the platform that powers ICE,” the letter sanctimoniously asserts.
This politicization of the message falls flat at a time when President Trump has been swept into office on the strength of a clear-cut anti-illegal immigration mandate. Biometric technology is already proving effective in securing our borders. At U.S. airports or at police departments near the Mexican border, the use of biometrics has helped identify aliens attempting to enter our country with false identities. The American people want more of this, not less.
That is an awful lot of power for one company to have.
A far more persuasive argument can be made about the use of facial-recognition software by local police departments utilizing public video cameras. The Orlando Police Department has signed up with Amazon to test the Rekognition software utilizing eight video cameras posted around the city. There are 180 public security cameras available to police but only eight are being used for the pilot program. One can argue that citizens suspected of no crime whatsoever are being run through the equivalent of a police checkpoint just by going about their everyday lives.
The Orlando Weekly reports that police intend to use the software to upload mugshots of wanted criminals, and then scan live camera feeds for a match. “If the technology works, [we] intend to use it for those worst-case scenarios, for the most violent people out there – your sexual predators, people who have committed heinous crimes, murder, and that sort of thing, and as well to locate missing persons and missing juveniles,” Orlando Police Chief John Mina told the weekly newspaper in August.
The slope sure can get slippery from there. Yet every new technological policing advance has raised civil liberties concerns, and biometrics is nothing new in that regard. DNA forensics were a cause célèbre 30-odd years ago, yet are widely accepted as a crucial law enforcement tool today.
The Real Problem
The greatest fear in Amazon working with government and police departments to construct powerful surveillance software is the sheer size of the corporation itself. The company that many fear has grown so big as to be a monopolistic danger is now enmeshing itself within government police forces. Already, Amazon has been shown to have a powerful control over local economies and labor opportunities wherever it becomes ensconced. Local politicians, eager for the tax revenue they believe Amazon will attract, trip over themselves to court the company with all kinds of incentives to build warehouses and headquarters in their cities and states.
Once the goliath enters a community, it can use its enormous heft to wield a monopsony power over local labor. The term monopsony means one buyer for many sellers in a market. When thinking of a worker as one who sells his labor, you can easily see how Amazon’s dominant status in communities depresses wages.
Building surveillance tools for local police departments will only boost Amazon’s power in local markets all the more. Talk about your company town. If left unregulated, Amazon may assume frightening control over local communities: Courted by the mayor for tax purposes, setting the wagescale for factory workers who have no other local employment options, and running the surveillance software fed by cameras all over town for local police departments to tap into. That is an awful lot of power for one company to have.
In an outstanding column in The New York Post, Maureen Callahan quotes extensively from NYU professor Scott Galloway’s criticisms of Amazon’s frightful growth. Galloway paints a startling picture of how locked into Amazon many Americans already are and then points out that owner Jeff Bezos has already promised that the company “wants to feed, treat, entertain, educate and medicate America.”
In this way, Amazon poses a threat to the economic model that built America. Galloway warns, “The key to competitive markets is that no one entity has too much control of the marketplace.”
This is the real question that should be raised by worried Amazon workers. How big can one company get before it becomes a menace to the general public?