An Amazon executive did little to quell suspicion that the company sells its facial recognition software to federal immigration authorities during a public hearing Wednesday. Amazon public policy lead Brian Huseman did not deny the assertion by a New York City Councilmember that Immigrations and Customs Enforcement uses Amazon’s Rekognition platform.
The two discussed Amazon’s relationship with ICE during a hearing about the company’s plans to build a 25,000-person office in the Queens borough of New York. Their conversation highlighted the growing controversy shrouding facial recognition technology and the companies that provide it to the government. Tech workers and civil rights advocates have been sounding alarm bells about the technology’s potential to amplify racial bias, increase government surveillance, and hit over-policed communities even harder.
Here’s the exchange between New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and Huseman:
Johnson: What is Amazon’s relationship with ICE?
Huseman: I think you’re referring to our Rekognition technology which is a technology that matches images with customers …
Johnson: You’re a contractor with ICE?
Huseman: We provide that Rekognition service to a variety of government agencies and we think the government should have the best available technology.
In October, the Project on Government Oversight released emails between Amazon and ICE officials obtained through a public records request. They revealed a meeting between the agency and company over the summer. An unnamed Amazon employee said the company was “ready and willing to support the [Homeland Security Investigations] mission.”
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When the emails were released a few months ago, an ICE spokesperson told the Washington Post that “industry outreach and building relationships with potential contractors is fairly standard within government acquisition.” ICE does not have a contract with Amazon, according to public procurement data.
Update: ICE spokesperson Matthew Bourke declined to comment on Amazon directly. He did say, “ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations has used facial recognition in the past to assist during the course of criminal investigations related to fraudulent activities, identity theft and child exploitation crimes, and the component will continue to explore cutting-edge technology to compliment criminal investigations going forward.”
Amazon declined to comment on Wednesday’s hearing but a company spokesperson did confirm meeting with ICE in the past.
“We participated with a number of other technology companies in technology ‘boot camps’ sponsored by McKinsey Company, where a number of technologies were discussed, including Rekognition,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “As we usually do, we followed up with customers who were interested in learning more about how to use our services (Immigration and Customs Enforcement was one of those organizations where there was follow-up discussion).”
Amazon routinely pitches Rekognition to law enforcement agencies and police departments in Oregon and Florida already use the software. Hundreds of employees have called on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to stop selling the technology to governments, adding weight to the issues civil rights advocates have been raising.
New York Councilmember Brad Lander brought up those concerns during the hearing Wednesday.
“Do you understand that what we hear in this room … is that in pursuit of profit, Amazon is a willing partner in Trump’s deportation machine which will very likely lead to the deportation of immigrants in Queens, exactly the people that you claim to want as your neighbors,” Lander said.
Huseman defended Amazon’s “strong and public stance on immigration issues” and lobbying efforts “on behalf of DACA, on behalf of Dreamers, and on behalf of green card reform.”
“I think that’ll come as cold comfort to people who are picked up as a result of your facial recognition technology and that they won’t be that happy with you as neighbors,” Lander responded.