When Jeff Bezos took the stage at a Wired conference this week, he told the audience that it was part of a business leader’s job to make potentially unpopular decisions, like working with the military.
One day later, on Tuesday, an Amazon employee explained exactly why those decisions might be unpopular. In a public letter posted to Medium, an anonymous worker at the company outlined concerns about Amazon’s facial recognition tool, Rekognition. The product has been under fire since May, when the ACLU revealed that the company was offering it to police departments, raising serious civil liberties concerns.
“We know Bezos is aware of these concerns and the industry-wide conversation happening right now,” the employee wrote. ”On stage, he acknowledged that big tech’s products might be misused, even exploited, by autocrats. But rather than meaningfully explain how Amazon will act to prevent the bad uses of its own technology, Bezos suggested we wait for society’s ‘immune response.’”
It’s the second anonymous callout post from a tech employee in less than a week. On Friday, a Microsoft worker separately raised concerns on Medium about the company’s interest in a $10 billion contract to provide cloud services to the US Department of Defense. “Many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war,” the employee wrote. (“Microsoft submitted its bid on the JEDI contract on the October 12 deadline,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement. “While we don’t have a way to verify the authenticity of this letter, we always encourage employees to share their views with us.”)
The choice of Medium is itself noteworthy: a platform that has in the past been a place for users’ first-person missives, and one built with a tech company ethos. Siobhan O’Connor, vice president of editorial at Medium, says the posts were brought to them by a person they knew, and then their authors were verified to be employees. Both posts were behind Medium’s gated paywall, limiting reach somewhat, although O’Connor says they’ve received a wide readership. She says she recognized the letters as “particularly interesting to the readers of a platform like Medium.”
The letters were the latest salvo in a series of worker actions in Silicon Valley. Google employees have objected to the company working on a Defense Department AI project, which led Google to scuttle its plans. The company has also faced backlash over its plan to build a censored search engine in China, a move that has led not only to criticism but outright resignations. Amazon employees have objected to Rekognition, and Microsoft workers have objected to the company providing services to ICE, although leaders have stood behind the decisions in those cases. Salesforce has also faced both outside criticism and public protests over its ICE contracts.
Yana Calou, who has organized tech workers as part of the organization Coworker.org, says employees are thinking about what accountability looks like in an industry already facing substantial media pressure. While there’s been “incredible journalism” on the subject, Calou says, workers are also aware of the impact a first-person, op-ed-style piece could have. “It put a personal spin on something that has felt to a lot of readers very, very theoretical,” O’Connor says.
“Amazon talks a lot about values of leadership,” the letter concludes. “If we want to lead, we need to make a choice between people and profits. We can sell dangerous surveillance systems to police or we can stand up for what’s right. We can’t do both.”