Big tech companies are the beneficiaries of hundreds of millions of dollars of government contracts, many of which involve surveillance and law enforcement operations. Over the past few years, workers at large tech firms have begun flexing their civic muscles, and ringing the alarm. Workers are concerned about contracts involving Trump’s deportation force ICE, support for human rights violators like China, and the role Silicon Valley plays in human rights crises like the genocide in Myanmar.
A central problem for organizers committed to holding companies accountable for their government work is the secrecy surrounding these deals. A new report by immigrants rights advocacy group Mijente, Who’s Behind Ice?, explodes much of that secrecy.
The report outlines how companies like Amazon, Palantir, DevTech, and others sell their services to federal and state law enforcement agencies. Together, Mijente writes, these tools constitute a “cloud industrial complex,” eliminating barriers to data sharing and undermining sanctuary city commitments. Through contracts with ICE, DHS, and CBP, these companies enable the government to access social media like Facebook and a wide range of biometric information and details about our personal lives otherwise beyond governmental reach. The report highlights that this entrenched network of information management services is funded by the Cloud First (now “Cloud Smart”) policy and the MGT Act, which tech giants lobbied for by leveraging over $250,000 in contributions to Senators.
History shows us we must pay close attention to the relationships between information technology and anti-democratic regimes. During WWII, IBM infamously helped the Nazis systematically kill Jews and other targets of the Nazi genocide. At the same time, in this country, the Secret Service strong-armed the United States Census into handing over information that was used to target Japanese Americans for internment.
Today, Amazon, Palantir, and DevTech are working with the US government to combine computing power beyond anything imagined in the 1930s with personal information more detailed than any census or punch card system to fuel operations targeting immigrants under the direction of a President who has unleashed authorities to go to war against immigrants and their families.
According to the Mijente report, Amazon, headed by the richest man in modern history, is the primary engine animating the government’s exploitation of personal and biometric data. Mijente finds that Amazon’s technology is supercharging surveillance and bringing together state and federal law enforcement information in dangerous and unprecedented ways.
The company has already come under fire for selling Rekognition, its faulty face surveillance tool, to police. But Amazon’s leadership is undaunted, and continues to sell the problematic product to government agencies with disgraceful human rights records. As Mijente observes, the technologies Amazon sells to ICE and other law enforcement agencies are actively undermining local efforts to protect immigrants from this administration’s aggressive anti-immigrant policies.
If we don’t stop it, Amazon’s technology will inevitably be used to surveil, control, and incarcerate people in the United States. The tools it sells to government agencies are ripe for antidemocratic uses. But Amazon is not alone in this space; companies like Palantir and DevTech have deep government ties and likewise develop and market dystopian tools enabling the mass monitoring and classifying of individuals and groups. Smaller, lesser known companies are involved, too. Massachusetts based company BI2 Technologies helps law enforcement collect and manage iris scans, another biometric identification that can be misused and abused. The company describes its products as optimized for public safety, but their operations and contracts with law enforcement may put marginalized people at risk. In 2012, for example, the company gave 12,000 iris images to the FBI; and in 2017 the company contracted with the Southwestern Border Sherriff’s Coalition, which represents 31 law enforcement agencies in areas where immigrants are the most vulnerable.
Vast quantities of sensitive data combined with computing capabilities in the hands of an administration hell bent on testing the limits of its power is a recipe for disaster. And this problem extends beyond US borders. Through information brokering agreements with Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and the Bahamas the United States is also able to access biometric data held by these countries.
Thanks to tech companies’ willingness to collaborate with the Trump regime and a lack of regulation, databases full of identifiable but not necessarily accurate information, face surveillance built on racially biased software, and matching systems that have not been tested or proven are now the hands of ICE agents throughout the country. Today, government funded corporate data management systems contain at least 230 million people’s biometric data, 36.5 million face records, and 2.8 million iris records along with a multitude of other information from height and weight to where people work and hang out. These vast data troves can be filtered even using sensitive categories like race.
The time is ripe for resistance. What impacts immigrants first later impacts everyone. We see this in the expansion of face surveillance, which is now used in in domestic airports but was initially targeted at non-citizens. The call to pump the brakes on the rapidly expanding biometric surveillance state has been joined by senators, scholars, and big tech employees alike.
This pressure can work. Earlier this year, when the family separation crisis was at the center of national news, over 300 Microsoft employees spoke out about the company’s contracts with ICE. This action and the public scrutiny that followed prompted action from Microsoft. The company removed and reposted its official statement about its work with ICE, and changed the way it talked about doing business with the agency. That’s a start, but it’s not enough.
Tech companies have sold their products and their companies to shareholders and consumers by promising connection, innovation, and discovery. Now we’re coming face to face with the ugly underbelly of Silicon Valley’s “move fast and break things” ethic. Companies have a choice: They can aid and abet human rights abuses, or they can refuse to collaborate. Millions of people, and history, are watching.
This blog post was written by Siri Nelson.