People

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."

Climate

A pro-China disinformation campaign is targeting rare earth miners

It’s uncommon for cyber criminals to target private industry. But a new operation has cast doubt on miners looking to gain a foothold in the West in an apparent attempt to protect China’s upper hand in a market that has become increasingly vital.

It is very uncommon for coordinated disinformation operations to target private industry, rather than governments or civil society, a cybersecurity expert says.

Photo: Goh Seng Chong/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Just when we thought the renewable energy supply chains couldn’t get more fraught, a sophisticated disinformation campaign has taken to social media to further complicate things.

Known as Dragonbridge, the campaign has existed for at least three years, but in the last few months it has shifted its focus to target several mining companies “with negative messaging in response to potential or planned rare earths production activities.” It was initially uncovered by cybersecurity firm Mandiant and peddles narratives in the Chinese interest via its network of thousands of fake social media accounts.

Keep Reading Show less
Lisa Martine Jenkins

Lisa Martine Jenkins is a senior reporter at Protocol covering climate. Lisa previously wrote for Morning Consult, Chemical Watch and the Associated Press. Lisa is currently based in Brooklyn, and is originally from the Bay Area. Find her on Twitter ( @l_m_j_) or reach out via email (ljenkins@protocol.com).

Some of the most astounding tech-enabled advances of the next decade, from cutting-edge medical research to urban traffic control and factory floor optimization, will be enabled by a device often smaller than a thumbnail: the memory chip.

While vast amounts of data are created, stored and processed every moment — by some estimates, 2.5 quintillion bytes daily — the insights in that code are unlocked by the memory chips that hold it and transfer it. “Memory will propel the next 10 years into the most transformative years in human history,” said Sanjay Mehrotra, president and CEO of Micron Technology.

Keep Reading Show less
James Daly
James Daly has a deep knowledge of creating brand voice identity, including understanding various audiences and targeting messaging accordingly. He enjoys commissioning, editing, writing, and business development, particularly in launching new ventures and building passionate audiences. Daly has led teams large and small to multiple awards and quantifiable success through a strategy built on teamwork, passion, fact-checking, intelligence, analytics, and audience growth while meeting budget goals and production deadlines in fast-paced environments. Daly is the Editorial Director of 2030 Media and a contributor at Wired.
Fintech

Ripple’s CEO threatens to leave the US if it loses SEC case

CEO Brad Garlinghouse said a few countries have reached out to Ripple about relocating.

"There's no doubt that if the SEC doesn't win their case against us that that is good for crypto in the United States,” Brad Garlinghouse told Protocol.

Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile for Collision via Getty Images

Ripple CEO Brad Garlinghouse said the crypto company will move to another country if it loses in its legal battle with the SEC.

Garlinghouse said he’s confident that Ripple will prevail against the federal regulator, which accused the company of failing to register roughly $1.4 billion in XRP tokens as securities.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Policy

The Supreme Court’s EPA ruling is bad news for tech regulation, too

The justices just gave themselves a lot of discretion to smack down agency rules.

The ruling could also endanger work on competition issues by the FTC and net neutrality by the FCC.

Photo: Geoff Livingston/Getty Images

The Supreme Court’s decision last week gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions didn’t just signal the conservative justices’ dislike of the Clean Air Act at a moment of climate crisis. It also served as a warning for anyone that would like to see more regulation of Big Tech.

At the heart of Chief Justice John Roberts’ decision in West Virginia v. EPA was a codification of the “major questions doctrine,” which, he wrote, requires “clear congressional authorization” when agencies want to regulate on areas of great “economic and political significance.”

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Enterprise

Microsoft and Google are still using emotion AI, but with limits

Microsoft said accessibility goals overrode problems with emotion recognition and Google offers off-the-shelf emotion recognition technology amid growing concern over the controversial AI.

Emotion recognition is a well established field of computer vision research; however, AI-based technologies used in an attempt to assess people’s emotional states have moved beyond the research phase.

Photo: Microsoft

Microsoft said last month it would no longer provide general use of an AI-based cloud software feature used to infer people’s emotions. However, despite its own admission that emotion recognition technology creates “risks,” it turns out the company will retain its emotion recognition capability in an app used by people with vision loss.

In fact, amid growing concerns over development and use of controversial emotion recognition in everyday software, both Microsoft and Google continue to incorporate the AI-based features in their products.

“The Seeing AI person channel enables you to recognize people and to get a description of them, including an estimate of their age and also their emotion,” said Saqib Shaikh, a software engineering manager and project lead for Seeing AI at Microsoft who helped build the app, in a tutorial about the product in a 2017 Microsoft video.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins