The term that liberals and conservatives have adopted for condemning people who brag about how much they’re going to save the world — ideally with as little effort and as many people watching as possible — is “virtue signaling.” Lately, corporate America has gotten in on the act. But, the more that corporations indulge in this for cheap wins on social media, the more hot water they’re getting into. And Amazon is in lots of it now.
This was most evident at the recent shareholder meeting, where activist investors like the National Legal and Policy Center went ready to confront Amazon, only to find out that any dissent would be pushed to the margins at the stage-managed event.
For years, Amazon has been criticized for spying on consumers with devices like the Echo and Alexa, devices that can violate our privacy on a level that would embarrass any cautionary tale by George Orwell or Rod Serling. Indeed, on May 22 the Free & Fair Markets Initiative found that 85 percent of respondents in a recent survey are concerned or very concerned by a recent report that Amazon Alexa-powered devices collect sensitive information about children. But Amazon’s uncreatively titled facial recognition software Rekognition has cranked that hot water up to boiling.
Rekognition has been sold to police departments in various cities across the country and can track unsuspecting individuals. This level of surveillance can make us safer against actual bad guys, but it actually hurts us when used against people for whom there is no probable cause to surveil.
A recent report from the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology exposed how police agencies are piloting programs across the country and putting millions of Americans under watch. Fueling the surveillance state is big business, and Amazon is cashing in.
And apparently even robots can be racist. Women of color are nearly 35 percent more likely to be targeted for false arrests as a result of facial recognition technology, portending a dangerous future that could lead to unjustified targeting.
In response, social advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch, Color For Change and Data for Black Lives have condemned Amazon over the potential abuses from leveraging Rekognition against our communities of color. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union conducted a test of Rekognition that showed the facial recognition software falsely identified dozens of members of Congress, including Rep. John Lewis. Georgia Democrat.
Another problem for Amazon is Palantir, a data analytics software company hosted on Amazon Web Services. Secretly used by the New Orleans Police Department, Palantir has been accused of targeting young Latino and African-American men while having virtually no impact on reducing crime. And while Jeff Bezos embraces a big business/cheap labor stance on open borders, Palantir has drawn backlash from hundreds of Amazon’s own employees for its connections with immigration deportations.
That last one is the sign of a real problem for large companies that want to say one thing and do another. Since Amazon rewards its employees with stock, its leadership is somewhat beholden to its employees. Those drawn to Amazon’s virtue signaling are grumbling about the company’s lack of, well, virtue.
For the first time in its wildly successful history, Amazon faces a huge slate of shareholder proposals, which will doubtless curb some of its runaway success with impositions in the name of saving the world. Two of the shareholder proposals are critical of Rekognition, one simply asking for a study and the other demanding a moratorium on sales to governments. Management asked the Securities and Exchnage Commission (SEC) to omit both of those resolutions, but was denied.
So Mr. Bezos may need to put his money where his facial recognition software is. (But he makes $212 million a day, so don’t worry about him.)
Americans read news stories about China’s social capital program, and how horrifyingly it allows their government to manipulate a population already denied rights like speech, religion, press and gun ownership. Thanks to big-tech hypocrisy, America is well on its way to the same place — just with a couple extra steps. George Orwell may have been right; he just got the year wrong.
• Jared Whitley has worked in the U.S. Senate, the Bush White House and the defense industry. He is principal of Whitley Political Media, LLC.