High-tech surveillance being deployed against immigrants threatens civil liberties of all.
Many think of Amazon as the company that has made shopping so much easier – turning a few clicks into bargains arriving at the front door. But as much as this convenience is appealing, there are aspects of Amazon’s business – albeit, less obvious – that some Amazon customers, employees and shareholders, not only denounce as insidious, but are actively challenging.
John Harrington is one of those people.
Mr. Harrington is President and CEO of a socially responsible investment advisory firm, Harrington Investments, Inc. (HII), based in Napa, CA,. He spearheaded an Amazon shareholder resolution in 2019, denouncing the facial recognition software, Rekognition, which the company has marketed and sold to government agencies.
“This invasive and sometimes inaccurate surveillance technology has great potential for violations of privacy, as well as human and civil rights abuses by government,” states Mr. Harrington, asserting that “… it is marketed as an enhancement for law enforcement but its implementation could ultimately undermine democracy and empower authoritarian rule, worldwide.”
Mr. Harrington does not level these charges lightly. And this is not the first time he or HII has tangled with corporate titans. He is a pillar of the Socially Responsible Investment (SRI) movement in California and in 1972, he wrote the first state report on South African apartheid and U.S. corporate involvement, resulting in one of the largest divestitures in the nation’s history, ultimately bringing about the end of apartheid and the democratization of South Africa.
Mr. Harrington compares the threats of tools like Amazon’s Rekognition that fuse government, law enforcement and corporate surveillance to the restrictive “pass system” used by the South African government during apartheid.
He cautions, “If South Africa’s racist regime had the kind of surveillance tools Amazon now wants to sell worldwide, they might still be in power today.”
In September, HII reintroduced the updated Amazon resolution for inclusion in the company’s proxy material and shareholder ballot for 2020.
Susan Perez is a board member of Secure Justice, an organization with the mission of working ‘against state abuse of power, and for reduction in government and corporate overreach’. She highlights that immigrants are among the top targets of surveillance technology utilized by government.
Ms Perez says, “Amazon’s involvement in repressive tools used to pursue immigrants goes way beyond their Rekognition software that is being targeted by shareholder resolutions”.
She further explains that “… Amazon Web Services (AWS) users like Palantir, a company that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) relies on to gather and fuse data on undocumented immigrants’ employment, phone records, housing in violation of sanctuary laws related to data sharing”.
Amazon’s cloud computing service hosts Palantir and other large enterprises systems on its platform, holding over $50 million in ICE contracts.
Working in Coalition
Amazon is a tech industry behemoth with the third largest market cap ($847.5 billion) of any company in the world – only Apple and Microsoft exceed the giant. So what will it take for it to listen, much less change its corporate behavior?
Brianna Harrington is HII’s research analyst and shareholder advocacy coordinator and she says her work shows that that roughly “twenty eight percent of Amazon’s own shareholders supported conducting an independent study on the risks of Rekognition.”
“We are not declaring victory,” says Brianna, “but this coalition of supporters is amassing, and Amazon has taken notice that this issue is far too important and will not go away – we are in this for the long haul.”
With key partners like the American Civil Liberties Union and Open MIC and support from other groups, organizations, individual and institutional investors, momentum is indeed building.
Companies are not immune to public outcry regarding social issues – and have felt this sort of pressure before, and at times, responded favorably. Recently, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America, SunTrust, BNP Paribas, Fifth Third Bancorp, Barclays and PNC were targeted by the Families Belong Together Coalition because of GEO Group and CoreCivic’s investments linked to the financing of private detention centers and prisons. With concerted campaign effort, these companies were persuaded to divest and Geo Group and CoreCivic lost an estimated $2.35 billion – or 87.4% – in lines of credit and term loans.
This is an example of what’s in store for Amazon until it changes its ways.