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Microsoft, Amazon and IBM express ‘solidarity.’ Should they end police contracts?

Activists say powerful tech companies have a responsibility to break business ties with law enforcement or use those relationships as leverage to demand needed reforms.

A woman stands in front of police during a protest

A protest leader calls for people to back up during a June 1 demonstration in Washington, D.C. The technology industry is facing pressure to respond to the police-brutality crisis because of its growing wealth and influence, its lack of diversity and its financial ties with law enforcement agencies.

Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Over the past week, tech giants including Microsoft, Amazon and IBM have expressed solidarity with protesters who have taken to the streets to oppose police brutality. But some activists say that it's not enough for these wealthy and influential companies to use social media to amplify black voices and call for racial justice — that they have a responsibility to break their business ties with law enforcement or use those relationships as leverage to demand needed reforms.

"If the companies truly believed what they were saying, they'd cut their contracts with any police department and actually create different tools and different policies that would protect peoples' data from reaching the hands of law enforcement agencies that are very clearly targeting and intend to hurt and harm black and brown communities," said Jacinta Gonzalez, an organizer with Mijente, a digital and grassroots hub for organizing within the Latinx community.

Any such moves would be complex and controversial, and it's not clear how broadly they would be supported. Some tech tools, like body cameras, have the potential to bring more accountability to policing. But the nationwide protests, following a white police officer's video-recorded killing of a black man in Minneapolis, come at a time when tech giants are selling increasingly more powerful and invasive products to law enforcement agencies that critics say can be abused and exacerbate racial disparities in enforcement.

At the same time, some of Silicon Valley's predominant companies have experienced a wave of internal activism over their contracts with government agencies and law enforcement, and face mounting pressure to correct the lack of diversity within their own ranks. Over the last week, tech companies have tried to answer this moment with carefully crafted statements, but activists argue that many of these companies' business models undermine their rhetoric.

"I think it's absurd, really," said Chris Gilliard, a professor at Macomb Community College, who focuses on digital surveillance and other forms of "digital redlining." "They got the PR notice that they were supposed to say something, and they all sort of mirror each other with these meaningless platitudes about how they stand in solidarity."

Since last weekend, Microsoft has been tweeting statements from its black employees in response to the killing of George Floyd and the resulting protests, and it issued a statement from CEO Satya Nadella saying there is "no place for hate and racism in our society." But the company did not mention whether the national conversation could lead it to reassess its work with police forces.

Microsoft has pitched its cloud services as key to the "digital transformation of law enforcement" and has touted the use of Microsoft Azure to cut costs and modernize policing. It partnered with the New York Police Department on the so-called Domain Awareness System, a platform that aggregates data from a network of cameras, license plate readers and other database-driven devices for use in counterterrorism and policing. Critics say the system invades New Yorkers' privacy rights and raises constitutional concerns about warrantless surveillance. Later this year, Microsoft is slated to sponsor the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference in New Orleans, alongside Amazon Web Services.

Amazon, meanwhile, sells its AI-powered Rekognition tool to so many police forces across the country that AWS' CEO recently said he couldn't even count them. That's in addition to Amazon's Ring doorbell camera system, which has video-sharing partnerships with more than 400 police departments. When Amazon tweeted a statement in support of the protesters, some pointed out that its tools are used to supercharge work both by police departments and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Disclosure: Reporter Issie Lapowsky is married to an Amazon employee.)

IBM, which tweeted the message "emb(race)" on Tuesday, has pushed its AI tools to law enforcement agencies to use in what is known as predictive policing, in which police use data to predict future crime hot spots and even future criminals, a practice that ethics researchers say can lead to racialized targeting. The company also reportedly partnered with the NYPD to use images on thousands of unknowing New Yorkers to improve its own AI tools and develop a system that allowed police departments to search surveillance footage by skin tone.

Amazon and Microsoft declined to comment on whether they are reconsidering their ties with law enforcement in light of the upheaval. The companies have called for Congress to regulate facial recognition technology in order to ensure that police do not use it inappropriately. But to those who believe tech companies shouldn't sell their powerful tools to police under any circumstances, that proposal doesn't go far enough.

An IBM spokesperson told Protocol the company has "robust processes in place to ensure that our client engagements do not conflict with our values and long-standing opposition to all forms of discrimination." The company did not say whether it is rethinking its ties to law enforcement.

Members of the law enforcement community have hailed tech companies for helping them solve crimes and track down criminals at a faster pace than ever. "We can't survive without these technologies," said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, who serves as a member of the International Association of Chiefs of Police's research council. He predicted that police departments would "find another vendor" to sell them similar tools if the largest companies stepped back from their contracts. "Someone's going to sell it to the police to make money," he said.

Law enforcement is a key market for tech, and numerous vendors pitch police leaders on tools that include license plate scanners, smart surveillance cameras, gunshot detectors and evidence database systems. Companies like Axon, which makes Tasers, body cameras and software products, have built multibillion-dollar businesses selling to police agencies. But unlike mainstream tech companies, these vendors are specialists created to serve this market and may not face the same pressures from employees or investors.

Big tech companies have in the past faced opposition to contracts with other government agencies. Amazon and Microsoft, as well as Salesforce, have been the subject of protests over their work with ICE and Customs and Border Patrol. In those cases, the companies held their ground. Microsoft, for instance, still has over $4 million in contracts with ICE, according to usaspending.gov. And Amazon continues to work with Palantir, the data-mining company co-founded by Peter Thiel that maintains multimillion-dollar contracts with the agency.

"I think broadly, tech companies want to have it both ways," said Evan Greer, deputy director of the digital advocacy nonprofit Fight for Our Future. "They want to be seen as progressive champions, but they want to make money by bone-grafting themselves to law enforcement, and I think frankly this is a moment to pick a side."

Still, there have been instances of companies bowing to this kind of moral pressure. Google pulled out of a contract to help the Department of Defense develop machine vision technology for drones, and it dropped a project centered around launching a search engine in China, following internal and external backlash.

Mijente's Gonzalez believes this could be a moment when police contracts become a liability for companies, because of what she sees as the profound need for change and the unresponsiveness of the agencies. "Some of these companies will get pressure internally from their employees, but also from the general public that is not going to believe their empty statements," Gonzalez said.

Groups like Fight for our Future and Mijente are hoping to hasten that trend by pressuring reform-minded local governments to cut ties with companies like Amazon and Microsoft, an extension of their calls to defund and crack down on police departments. "You have city councils and mayors who are now being forced to focus on over-policing and police violence as an issue," Greer said. "Canceling these partnerships should be on the list of things that they are doing."

It's unclear if these calls will gain momentum inside the companies or lead to significant shifts in their business relationships. Gilliard, for one, is doubtful. He said the idea of relying on corporations to take a virtuous stand on this issue underscores that the actual levers of accountability for law enforcement in America are broken.

"We shouldn't have to go to Amazon or Facebook or IBM and say, 'Please be moral,'" Gilliard said. "That's an inversion of democratic process."

Protocol | Fintech

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