“Black Lives Matter” They Say; “We stand in solidarity” They Say: Observations Beyond Amazon’s Words
Actions (or rather the absence of meaningful action) speak louder than words, I say.
An excerpt from a larger essay for class that I am still refining; version with footnotes here*
Amazon has consistently shown its lack of care for Black lives. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, 19,816 Amazon front-line workers have gotten COVID-19 and at least 10 have died. Considering that 26.5% of Amazon employees are Black, it is easy to imagine that Black workers bore the brunt of Amazon’s hazardous work conditions. It is also easy to imagine that this was the case for years before the COVID-19 pandemic; Amazon has had a safety crisis with increasing injury rates despite OSHA investigations and recommendations. In the wake of George Floyd’s execution, a sense of political danger yielded meaningless messages and the paltry action from Amazon. Calling for a one-year moratorium on police-use of Rekognition, Amazon’s facial recognition technology, is insignificant. Words like insignificant, meaningless, and paltry are appropriate considering Amazon’s continued contracts and agreements with law enforcement and prisons, whether through Amazon Web Services (AWS) or Ring. Amazon, therefore, is complicit in police brutality against Black people, mass incarceration of Black people, and mass deaths of Black people in prison. While Black people are 12% of the general population in the United States, they are a whopping 33% of the prison population. Considering that Black people make up 33% of the prison population, it is again easy to imagine that Black people bore the brunt of the 152,955 COVID-19 cases and 1,276 deaths in prison. Lastly, it is three times more likely, compared to a white person, that a Black person will have a fatal encounter with the police.
Amazon must be held accountable to its conveniently timed words. For decades, Amazon avoided unions by suspending and terminating dissenting workers under false pretenses, using heat maps to track the unionization threat at Whole Foods groceries and distribution warehouses, and seeking to hire employees for the purpose of tracking so-called labor organizing threats. Such measures run afoul of research showing that unionization is a step in closing the racial wealth gap. Amazon is infamous for its treatment of workers, but its complicity in the oppression of Black people within multiple spheres is particularly horrendous.
In 102 words and no mention of George Floyd, Amazon published a statement on June 10, 2020 declaring a one year moratorium on police use — and only police use — of Rekognition, the deeply flawed facial recognition software used by law enforcement agencies. This insufficient statement only came after IBM announced it would discontinue its facial recognition product and House and Senate Democrats introduced The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act. Amazon’s moratorium came at a time when it would have been politically dangerous to continue business as usual. Amazon had not been moved to action in the two preceding years despite nearly 70 civil rights and research organizations writing a letter to Jeff Bezos demanding that Amazon stop providing facial recognition technology to governments, 150,000 signatures petitioning the technology, shareholders writing a concerned letter and Amazon employees also writing a concerned internal memo. two reputable studies were published. It is noteworthy that Amazon tried to discredit the study that was led by Joy Buolamwini and Timnit Gebru, Black women who are researchers affiliated with MIT and Microsoft respectively. Nearly 80 AI researchers came to the defense of the peer-reviewed study. The Algorithmic Justice League, founded by Buolamwini, and Center on Privacy and Technology authored the Safe Face Pledge, a public commitment to prohibiting deadly use of facial recognition technology, inhibiting police use, and requiring transparency for government use. Amazon did not sign. All of these efforts were not enough. Political danger in the form of the nationwide protests was the key.
The harm that Amazon does to the Black community does not end with Rekognition, despite what the brief moratorium announcement may lead its readers to believe. Amazon is the largest provider of technology to law enforcement. The announcement was conspicuously vague and did not mention US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or the Department of Homeland Security. This absence is telling, as the article “Before Portland, Trump’s Shock Troops Went After Border Activists” demonstrates; the violent, militarized response is not new to Black Lives Matter protests and has in fact been on display earlier in this presidency. The statement also did not address the lack of oversight for police officers trying to access footage through Ring.
Amazon is also tied to prisons. For example, AWS is an integral part of the Verus system, which downloads, analyzes, and transcribes all recorded prison calls, ostensibly to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by tracking mentions of words like cough or sneeze. The Verus system is used in at least 26 facilities in 11 states. This level of intrusion at this scale can lead to extreme privacy breaches. AWS was of course integrated into prisons before the pandemic. In early January 2020, cybersecurity researchers stumbled upon an unsecured server hosted by Amazon. The server had 36,000 documents that contained sensitive data, such as medication information, about prisoners.
It is also entirely possible that Amazon has ties to prison labor; Amazon has been deliberately unclear about the supply chain behind Amazon-branded products. In regards to prison labor being a part of the supply chain for Amazon-branded products, more research is necessary. Amazon’s Supplier Code of Conduct says that Amazon suppliers must not use forced labor, but that does not necessarily exclude prisoners whose limited options include voluntarily accepting extremely low-wage work. 63,000 prisoners work in industries that produce goods for the outside world; prison labor has also been critical in the response to COVID-19, from making PPE to working in agriculture. Prisoners work in coercive conditions and are paid hideously low wages, ranging from a few cents an hour to a few dollars.
The aforementioned Supplier Code of Conduct is littered with language that is far from being proactive and strict and in fact leaves ample room to dance around. For example, suppliers are only encouraged to evaluate whether workers make enough to meet their basic needs. Amazon’s approach to its supply chain for Amazon-branded products allows more opportunity for solidarity building. Factories in China, India, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh have been used by Amazon for manufacturing its products. In particular, Amazon works with factories in Bangladesh that other retailers have stopped working with. Amazon has not signed on to safety agreements, which, for example, Walmart and Target have signed, banning Bangladeshi factories that do not adhere to safety standards. Amazon uses independent auditors to perform supplier assessments. Amazon accepts audits from Industry Associations including amfori BSCI, Better Work (BW), Responsible Business Alliance (RBA), Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit (SMETA), and SA8000 Standard, which does not in reality bode well for workers due to the profit-driven nature of the audit industry.
On a final note with an international view, Amazon is still tied to other controversial players in the facial recognition market. AWS is used by AnyVision, an Israeli tech company accused of using its facial recognition software in collaboration with the military and government to achieve mass surveillance of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. AnyVision’s technology is used at checkpoints as Palestinians enter Israel for work, which likely includes essential work during the COVID-19 pandemic. There is another point of solidarity — thousands of law enforcement officers from the United States receive mass surveillance, racial profiling, and protest suppression trainings from Israeli officers who use such militarized strategies against Palestinians. In exchange, the Israeli officers learn how to implement policies such as stop-and-frisk.