A US-based multinational online retail and cloud computing giant. The main provider of cloud infrastructure and services for US immigration authorities, and also provides these services to prisons and police. Used to discriminate against Palestinians in its delivery policy.
Amazon.com Inc is the world’s largest online retailer and cloud storage provider. It also engages in artificial intelligence and produces media content. Amazon is headquartered in Seattle, Washington. Its subsidiary, Amazon Web Services (AWS), is the world’s largest provider of cloud storage services. As of December 2019 Amazon employs 798,000 employees, not including temporary and seasonal personnel. In 2019, Amazon reported $280.5 billion in revenue, with sales from AWS totaling $35 billion.
Immigration Surveillance and Deportations
Amazon provides IT infrastructure to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through its government-facing cloud infrastructure service, AWS GovCloud. Many of the databases and case management tools that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses to track, monitor, and deport immigrants are hosted on Amazon’s servers.
The central DHS-wide biometrics database, Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System (HART), is hosted on AWS GovCloud. In 2020, DHS started using HART as its primary biometrics database, replacing the previous system, Automated Biometrics Identification System (IDENT). HART, which was designed by Northrop Grumman, can store, match, process, and share the biometric and biographic information for hundreds of millions of people, significantly expanding the system’s use of facial recognition and its storage capacity. As a result, in 2020, DHS broadened the type of biometrics it can require from immigrants and nearly doubled the amount of people required to submit biometric information. The government's use and storage of such a mass amount of personal data has raised concerns around the targeting and surveillance of immigrants as well as the dangers of building a massive database of biometric information.
Similarly, ICE began to migrate its Investigative Case Management (ICM) system to AWS GovCloud in 2018. The ICM system, designed by Palantir for ICE, stores immigrants’ data from multiple sources, including family relationships, immigration history, employment history, biometric identification, license plate numbers, social media profiles, and contact information. ICE uses this data to track, monitor, and target immigrants. AWS also stores the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a database that ICE agents can access through ICM to build cases for prosecution.
Amazon does not supply cloud services directly to DHS or to ICE. Instead, these contracts go through third-party providers. For example, ICE contracted Booz Allen Hamilton to migrate ICM to AWS. It is therefore difficult to identify which other DHS systems are stored on Amazon’s servers. Data from the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) - which sets security and compliance standards for the federal government’s cloud services - suggests that AWS GovCloud is the most commonly used cloud platform for DHS. As of October 2020, seven cloud providers are authorized by FedRAMP to serve DHS and have the “high-level” security accreditation necessary for the sensitive data that DHS collects. Of these seven providers, AWS GovCloud has by far the most authorizations, followed by Microsoft.
Trying to expand its services to DHS beyond cloud storage, Amazon pitched to ICE its facial recognition software, Rekognition, in 2018. However, there is no evidence that ICE uses Rekognition. More information about Rekognition can be found in the next section.
AWS hosts multiple products that are used to surveil people inside prisons. Similar to its business with DHS, Amazon does not provide services directly to prisons but through third party providers, making it difficult to identify the full extent of Amazon’s involvement in the prison industry. However, we do know a few examples of AWS’s uses in prisons.
For instance, LEO Technologies, a surveillance company that develops applications for prisons and police departments, uses AWS to obtain transcripts of phone calls made by people in prisons. These transcripts are then analyzed by LEO Technologies' phone monitoring software, Verus, which is used in at least 26 facilities in 11 states. Beginning in 2020, Verus started scanning prison phone calls for mention of COVID-19 in order to determine who may have the virus, a practice which has been criticized by the ACLU. In another example, JailCore, a company that develops prison management applications, uses Amazon’s servers to store detailed information about the daily activities of people in prisons, including how many times and when they use the restroom, shower, get meals, receive visits and packages, and participate in recreation. JailCore’s data stored on AWS was found in 2020 to be unsecured and leaking 36,077 people’s records in several U.S. states.
Police Surveillance Using Ring and Rekognition
Amazon’s subsidiary Ring makes “smart” doorbells with video/motion cameras and allows police to access and use the footage it collects. In 2018, three months after Amazon acquired Ring, it launched the Neighbors app, which allows users to report crimes and upload footage captured by their Ring devices. Ring has a Law Enforcement Neighbors Portal which allows police departments to view, request, obtain, and download Ring footage without a warrant, and to store that footage indefinitely. This tool is tailored to police processes, allowing them to organize videos according to investigation case numbers.
Rather than just a doorbell company, Ring also brands itself as a law enforcement company and has been aggressively marketing its technology for police use. In 2016, before Ring was acquired by Amazon, Ring’s CEO boasted that the company is “officially declaring war” on “dirtbag criminals.” Ring hosts annual parties at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference and has trained police departments on obtaining video footage without a warrant. Police departments sign MOUs with Ring that give them free access to the Neighbors Portal in return for encouraging the communities they police to use Ring devices and the Neighbors app. Ring has offered its users product discounts if they report to police “suspicious activity.” In one instance, the El Monte police department in California promised people free Ring devices in exchange for testifying in criminal cases, however the company was not involved in this initiative.
The number of U.S. police departments that use Rings’s Neighbors Portal reached 1,300 in 2020, including some of the largest cities in the U.S., such as Austin, TX; Chicago; Dallas; Denver; Fort Worth, TX; Houston; Jacksonville, FL; Los Angeles; Phoenix; San Antonio; San Francisco; and San Jose, CA. Police use of this tool is increasing fast, as there were only 600 police departments using Ring at the end of 2019. Ring’s policies and relationships to police jeopardize privacy, lack regulation, rely on fear-mongering, and enable over-policing, increased surveillance, and racial profiling in what the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls a “digital porch-to-police pipeline.”
Amazon has plans to equip Ring doorbells with facial recognition tools for police use. According to the ACLU, Amazon filed a patent application for a Ring doorbell with facial recognition software that police could use to match faces from doorbell video feeds with their internal photo database. This system would implement neighborhood “watch-lists” that could alert police when certain individuals are captured in the doorbell camera. Until facial recognition is integrated into its doorbell, Ring relies on workers from its Ukraine office to manually tag people and objects found in its video feeds.
Apart from Ring, Amazon has been selling Rekognition, its facial recognition software, to local law enforcement agencies. Using facial recognition and facial analysis technology, Rekognition can identify people in a crowd in real-time by pulling facial IDs from a single video frame, store these data for later use, and cross-reference them against databases.
It is unknown which and how many police departments in the U.S. use Rekognition, and the company claimed that it itself does not know nor keep track. However, it is known that Amazon provided Rekognition to the Orlando Police Department for free in 2017 as a pilot. In another example, Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon was using Rekognition, but claimed to have stopped in 2020. In 2018, Amazon pitched its Rekognition software to ICE. The ACLU has charged that Rekognition can be misused by law enforcement for mass surveillance of immigrants, protestors, and activists. The ACLU also demonstrated how Rekognition yields many false matches, with a disproportionate error rate for African Americans.
Amidst nationwide protests against police brutality, in 2020 Amazon announced “a one-year moratorium on police use of [its] facial recognition technology.” However, Amazon noted it would still allow Rekognition to be used to “help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families.” Similarly, Amazon’s subsidiary Ring stated that it “will neither sell nor offer facial recognition technology to law enforcement.” As detailed before, Ring does not yet have facial recognition capabilities. These statements reverse Amazon’s previous policy towards law enforcement. In 2018, in response to mounting public, investor, and employee pressures, the company stated that it was “unwaveringly in support of our law enforcement, defense, and intelligence community” even if it does not “know everything they’re actually utilizing the tool for.”
Past Discrimination against Palestinians
In 2019, Amazon started offering free shipping to Israel, including to illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. However, the company did not offer the same service to the Palestinian Authority, including to Palestinian towns and villages located near illegal settlements. In March 2020, Amazon had reversed its policy and began offering free delivery to customers in the Palestinian territories.