Amazon, Palantir and ICE

How Silicon Valley Profits from and Assists in Government Surveillance of Immigrants

For the last year, Amazon employees have been concerned. In June of 2018, employees circulated a letter condemning the use of Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Rekognition, an Amazon-developed facial recognition software, by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). DHS and ICE use cloud hosting services to store their own data, but also access data about immigrants from other departments of government, especially when combined with data-mining software. AWS also provides cloud hosting for Palantir, a data-mining company owned by Peter Thiel, which sells their software to ICE.


More than a year later, none of the problems from the first letter have been solved. In fact, they've gotten worse.

Rekognition has been proven to show racial bias, with, for example, “much higher error rates while classifying the gender of darker skinned women than lighter skinned men (31% vs 0%),” a group of scientists stated in an open letter on Medium. The ACLU found that “the program mis-identified 28 U.S. lawmakers as people who had been arrested for crimes. Notably, the study found that Amazon’s software is far more likely to identify people of color as suspects.”

Palantir provides software that collects information from various government and non-government sources, including, according to a report from The Intercept, services provided by “Cellebrite, an Israeli company that specializes in software used to breach cell phones” and Black Asphalt, a data network that the Washington Post reported Iowa and Kansas have prohibited the use of "because of concerns that it might not be a legal law enforcement tool.” The Intercept found that, according to government funding documents, Palantir’s software is “‘mission critical’ to ICE, meaning that the agency will not be able to properly function without the program.” If Amazon is enabling Palantir, Amazon is also enabling ICE.

ICE is detaining more immigrants for longer periods of time under worsening conditions, including asylum seekers who have not previously been detained long-term. The open letter from Amazon Employees notes such abuses as “extreme overcrowding (one facility was holding 900 people, and a space designed for only 125), freezing temperatures (facilities are regularly referred to as 'hieleras' or 'ice boxes'), and cruelty from guards at these detention centers." The letter also adds that "[w]hen members of Congress visited a facility recently, they learned that detained women were 'told by agents to drink from the toilets' if they wanted water. This is a horrifying violation of human rights – and it’s powered by AWS [Amazon Web Services].”

The letter points to the Amazon Web Services Acceptable Use Policy as reason to drop both ICE and Palantir as clients, just as it did with WikiLeaks. The Acceptable use policy prohibits “any activities that are illegal, that violate the rights of others, or that may be harmful to others, our operations or reputation.” Amazon employees pointed out in their letter “Palantir directly enables ICE to ‘violate the rights of others’ by powering the deportation processes that are rounding up immigrants and putting them in concentration camps. Additionally, hosting Palantir is ‘harmful to our reputation’ because it hurts customers’ trust and leads to negative publicity. By continuing to host Palantir despite clear documentation of ongoing rights abuses that result from their products, AWS is choosing not to enforce its Terms of Service.”

With the increasingly dire reports of immigrant treatment in ICE detention camps, the letter, signed by more than 500 employees, is circulating again more than a year later.

Amazon’s response has been underwhelming, which isn’t surprising when you take into account how much money Amazon makes from both DHS and Palantir. According to research from Mijente, an immigrant rights group, Amazon makes about $600,000 a month from Palantir. Technology Review reported on the study, adding “There is no publicly available data on how much Amazon profits from these [DHS] contracts, but DHS’s complete IT portfolio totals $6.8 billion, which accounts for close to 10% of the agency’s projected spending in fiscal year 2019. An AWS spokesperson had no comment when presented with details of the new report.”

Immigration and human rights activists have been increasingly concerned by the use of the sophisticated data-mining software provided by Palantir. The regulations for federal governments sharing information are vague or non-existent, which has led to data collecting software that gathers data between different government departments, information from social media and phone records, and even from police departments in sanctuary cities, where the local government have made it clear that they do not want to cooperate with or offer assistance to ICE.

What does this mean for immigrants? It means that if an immigrant has come into contact with any department of government, ICE can use that information to find out where they live, where they work, and who their family members are. From there, they can use data-mining programs to search non-government websites (like Facebook) to find out information about friends, routines, or even places of worship. The New York Times published a piece where ICE found out that a woman was selling piñatas on Facebook and lured her and her children out of the house to be detained by posing as someone interested in buying one from her.

Just as there is little to no regulation of what information can be shared between government organizations, there is also very little regulation as to who can be targeted by ICE surveillance and data-mining. The Nation reported in March that ICE had been circulating data about several protests in New York and the people who were planning to attend, despite the fact that many of the protests were not about ICE or even immigration at all, and the people targeted weren't immigrants.

Amazon has repeatedly assured critics that they will abide by government regulations for Rekognition and the data hosted by AWS, as well as hold users to Amazon’s Terms of Service, but those assurances mean very little when the government regulations simply don’t exist, and Amazon doesn’t have the ability to provide enforcement of their own Terms of Service. In an interview with Gizmodo, Kade Crockford, Director of the ACLU’s Technology for Liberty Program, said “If Amazon doesn’t know how customers are using the technology, how can it know if customers are violating its ‘Terms of Service?' Amazon’s leadership team is doubling down on a biased and dangerous technology that it’s own workers are warning against, and that it acknowledges it can’t adequately control. […] Surveillance technology in the hands of police is often wrongly used to target immigrants, communities of color, and political protesters. A ‘Terms of Service’ won’t change that.”

“It’s dangerous for Amazon leadership to trust that their customers, in this case governments, will simply abide by the terms of service. It’s dangerous that there is no preventative measure to guard against abuse,” an employee lamented to Vanity Fair.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos believes that if the federal government uses their services to violate people’s rights, that society’s “immune response” will kick in, and public outcry will either result in regulation or termination of services. The “immune response” of employee letters and public protests has so far not been enough for Amazon to change anything about their business dealings with DHS or Palantir. Activists are urging Amazon customers and concerned citizens to contact their representatives to urge for regulation of facial recognition software and data-mining software, participate in public protests, and boycott the Amazon online store. An Amazon employee penned an open letter about Rekognition that says it best: “Our concern isn’t one about some future harm: Amazon is designing, marketing, and selling a system for dangerous mass surveillance right now.”