Tech companies denounce police brutality, but many have ties with law enforcement
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer has galvanized nearly universal support to address social injustice and racial inequality. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in every state in the country, tens of millions of dollars have been raised for charitable causes, and even typically mealy-mouthed and risk-averse corporations have spoken out. That includes tech giants in Silicon Valley, many of which have made new commitments to social justice in the wake of Floyd's killing. However, a lot of these companies maintain relationships with law enforcement that are often lucrative and unlikely to end any time soon, and have their own internal struggles with racism that require addressing.
As protesters took to the streets across the country, Amazon released a statement decrying the "inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people." The company promised to "stand in solidarity with the Black community—our employees, customers, and partners—in the fight against systemic racism and injustice."
The commitment to addressing issues of racism and injustice should probably include ceasing the sale of its often inaccurate facial recognition technology to police. For at least two years now, Amazon has been providing its Rekognition system to law enforcement agencies at the local and federal levels, according to the American Civil Liberties Union. A study of Amazon's software conducted last year by the MIT Media Lab found that it regularly misidentified people with darker skin. The ACLU showed in 2018 that the technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress, a disproportionate number of which were people of color, with mugshots.
Despite calls from experts to cease selling the technology to law enforcement for fear that it will reinforce racial and gender biases, the company has continued to provide Rekognition to police forces. In fact, the Amazon Web Services CEO Andy Jassy told PBS Frontline earlier this year that it actually is unaware of just how many agencies are using the technology, nor is it fully aware of how it is being used. Following the killing of George Floyd, Jassy tweeted, "What will it take for us to refuse to accept these unjust killings of black people? How many people must die, how many generations must endure, how much eyewitness video is required? What else do we need? We need better than what we're getting from courts and political leaders."
Amazon has also used its network of home security tools, including Ring doorbells and the accompanying Neighbors app, to create a virtual neighborhood watch that police can check in on. Ring has partnerships with many law enforcement agencies across the country and access to a portal that allows them to request videos from private Ring cameras. These tools combined with the Neighbors app have been accused of driving instances of racial profiling within neighborhoods, with racist comments often running rampant on the platform.
Amazon did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Mic regarding the company's current relationship with law enforcement agencies and if it is reassessing its policies regarding how its technology is used by police. The company did announce that it will provide $10 million to a number of organizations supporting justice and equity, including the NAACP, National Urban League, Thurgood Marshall College Fund, and ACLU.
Google also has a complicated and tangled relationship with law enforcement. Last year, reports indicated that Google's massive trove of cellphone data including location was being used by law enforcement agencies to create a digital dragnet. Through geofencing warrants, police could request data from Google on any device in a surrounding area at the time of a crime. Police could then have Google provide additional information associated with devices that were of interest.
Google has since implemented a fee for police placing requests for this data, but civil rights groups still warn that the geofencing warrants can be overreaching and implicate innocent people simply for being in the general vicinity of where a crime happened. The overreach can harm people of color, who may be more heavily targeted as a result of implicit biases or racial profiling.
Google declined to comment on its relationship with law enforcement and if it will re-evaluate any of its policies. The company announced that it will give $12 million in funding to organizations working to address racial inequities.
Microsoft received praise last year after it announced that it would not sell its facial recognition technology to police. However, the company does have an ongoing relationship with these agencies. It markets cloud and AI services specifically for law enforcement purposes, and has worked on a public-private partnership with the New York Police Department to create Domain Awareness System, a surveillance system designed to track surveillance targets and gain detailed information about them.
The Surveillance Technology Oversight Project has warned that the Domain Awareness System may enable NYPD to engage in racial bias and profiling. Last year, emails and documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests and published by The Appeal found that the NYPD maintained photographs of Black Lives Matters protesters for years and appeared to be surveilling the movement.
Microsoft declined to comment, choosing instead to point to its Criminal Justice Reform Initiative, which "invests in partnerships and programs working to drive reforms, focusing on policing" and to a number of social media posts from company leadership.
Uber spent years thwarting law enforcement attempts to crack down on its services in cities where it legally was not allowed to operate, but when the company readied itself to go public, it started cozying up with the police. According to a Bloomberg report, Uber showed police agencies a massive amount of user data, including local data of individuals and information about drivers and riders that pass through a given location.
In addition to its willingness to get close with law enforcement when it's convenient, Uber also engaged in legal battles that could hurt its drivers, a majority of whom are people of color. The company is spending well over $100 million to campaign against AB5, a California law that would require Uber to consider many of its drivers to be employees rather than contract workers who do not receive benefits or minimum wage guarantees.
Uber’s platform has also faced challenges with discrimination of people of color. Multiple studies have found that drivers with an “African American-sounding name” are more likely to have their fares canceled, and Black riders are more likely to face an extended wait time.
Uber did not respond to multiple requests for comment regarding its involvement with law enforcement or if it places any consideration to the risks riders or drivers of color might face when dealing with police. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi pledged $1 million to Equal Justice Initiative and the Center for Policing Equity.
Lyft, like Uber, has struggled with racial equality on its platform. While Lyft has explicitly attempted to track racist and discriminatory behavior, recent studies have found there are still disparities between how white and non-white users are treated. A study published last year found that minority riders are more than twice as likely to have a ride canceled during non-peak hours as their white counterparts.
When asked about its ties with law enforcement and efforts to address racial injustice, Lyft addressed its emergency button that connects riders and drivers in need of assistance with emergency services. The company noted that the feature does not prompt a user to call 911 for a situation that they otherwise wouldn't. However, Lyft did acknowledge the potential risk that is involved in involving the police in a potentially sensitive situation.
"Calling for emergency assistance can make a situation safer for some and too often, more dangerous for others based on the color of their skin," a spokesperson for Lyft tells Mic. "The question isn’t whether Lyft users should be able to call for emergency assistance when they need it. It’s how can Americans fight systemic racism in our society and empower communities of color, so we can all live in a world that is equal and more just.”
Earlier this week, Lyft announced that it would provide $500,000 in ride credit to national civil rights organizations.
Nextdoor, a localized social network focused on specific communities, has long struggled with problems of racism on its platform — so much so that the company has tried to create prompts that identity potentially racially charged sentiment and attempts to dissuade users from making those posts. However, the company has also courted law enforcement and public agencies to use its platform to connect with communities. Police have responded by monitoring the content and occasionally crowdsourcing help when seeking a suspect, potentially putting people at risk of being targeted by police based on unsubstantiated claims.
Nextdoor did not respond to a request for comment regarding its relationship with law enforcement. Nextdoor has not publicly pledged funds to any civil rights, social justice, or police reform organizations in the wake of the George Floyd killing.