Hundreds of protesters demanded that Amazon cut any ties it may have with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
The Thursday protest outside the Amazon Web Services Summit at the Javits Center was sparked by leaked documents showing that Amazon Web Services is willing to provide ICE with its Rekognition Video system. The system identifies people, objects, text, scenes, and activities in images or videos and provides “highly accurate facial analysis and facial recognition on image and video.”
“We are ready and willing to support the vital HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] mission,” the document reads. “Thanks again for your interest in AWS [Amazon Web Services] to support ICE and the HSI mission.”
However, Matthew Bourke of ICE’s Office of Public Affairs told amNewYork that ICE does not have a specific contract with Amazon for facial recognition technology. But ICE does have a contract with Four Points Technology to use Amazon Web Services for unspecified cloud storage solutions. The contracts are for “other computer-related services” and are estimated to run through March 2021, according to Bourke.
“There are no direct contracts [with Amazon],” he said. “[It] is consistent with other government agencies which receive Amazon Web Services through this vendor.”
Yet reports that ICE has used facial recognition technology to identify undocumented immigrants through their driver’s licenses, as well as aggressive border control policies, left many of the protesters feeling nervous.
"You never know what’s going to happen," said Eliana Fernandez, 31, of Long Island. "I always have that thought in the back of my mind of can I get separated from my children," said the native of Ecuador, a DACA recipient. She’s also fearful that her undocumented partner could be deported. “At any given moment he can be taken away from us. … But we don’t want to constantly live under fear so we try to live as normal of a life as we can.”
An Amazon Web Services spokesperson said the burden is on the government to clarify "what is acceptable use of AI and ramifications for its misuse.
"Companies and government organizations need to use existing and new technology responsibly and lawfully… We remain eager for the government to provide this additional clarity and legislation, and will continue to offer our ideas and specific suggestions," the spokesperson said.
Some protesters offered information to those entering the Amazon Web Services Summit, while other held up signs against the Javits Center windows to get conference-goers attention.
Web developer Jonsi Stefansso, 44, from Iceland, attended the conference and said that he understands the protesters’ concerns, but added that Amazon’s technology is not different from other companies like Apple or Google. He regularly uses AWS services for work.
“In Iceland we have some of the strictest privacy regulations in the world,” he said. “Privacy is really important to me, but the more you think about it, privacy is almost dead.”
Helen Leshinksy, 37, said the possibility of ICE using facial recognition technology only worsens conditions for immigrants.
“It is a terror on immigrant communities. They’re putting people in concentration camps and … what they are doing is outside the law. It’s outside of human rights,” she said. Though she now lives in Washington Heights, Leshinsky and her family were granted U.S. asylum in the ‘80s to escape Soviet rule. She described current border control tactics as “horrifying and overwhelming.”
“But we can’t be overwhelmed,” she said. “We have to stand up while there’s still time.”
Brooklyn resident Audrey Sasson, 43, said Amazon needs to evaluate its partnerships.
“You just have to listen to the stories of the people who are suffering down there and not surviving down there,” she said. “People are screaming and telling us what’s going on and we can’t turn a blind eye.”
Lifelong Manhattanite Jamie Bauer, 60, said the primary issue is who controls the technology.
“It’s not that the technology itself is bad, but it’s being used for nefarious purposes to terrorize immigrants in the United States and elsewhere,” they said. “[Donald] Trump keeps saying that he’s going to have ICE do home invasions to snatch adults and children out of their homes and deport them. People need to stand up and object to that and object to the whole industrial complex that’s been built around that.”
Only hours before the protest, The New York Times reported ICE will conduct nationwide raids on Sunday. U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer also introduced the “Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act” Thursday morning to end family separations, ensure detained children have health and safety protections, mandate medical assessments, and regulate detention center conditions.