Big Tech’s Role in Policing the Protests

Michael Calore: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab, I’m Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED and I am joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior writer, Lauren Goode.

Lauren Goode: Hey Mike, I’m here at home as I have been for the past several weeks taping this podcast, but this is the week that lots of people left their homes and went out into the streets and we’re going to talk about that on this week’s podcast.

MC: That’s right. We are also joined this week by WIRED senior writer, Sidney Fusell. Hi Sidney.

Sidney Fussell: Hey guys, thanks for having me on.

MC: Of course, thanks for coming back. As Lauren mentioned, it has been a very momentous and emotional week across the country and around the world. Millions of people have gathered to protest police brutality after a viral video showed an officer in Minneapolis killing George Floyd, an unarmed black man. The sheer scale of the demonstrations and the increasingly violent police response have dominated the national conversation. Police departments have also been scrutinized for their use of enhanced surveillance technology which is often provided by tech companies like Amazon and Google.

While these companies make statements condemning systemic racism and violence they’ve also provided platforms and tools that worsen inequality. On the second half of the show, WIRED senior writer, Lily Hay Newman will be joining us to talk about how protesters can protect themselves from these digital surveillance methods. But first, let’s get into some of the methods themselves. Sidney, you wrote a story for WIRED this week about techs ties to law enforcement. Tell us more.

SF: Yeah. I was definitely one of those people who was shocked and stunned and horrified by what I was seeing and at first I had that initial very good rush of, “Oh, it’s so good to see all these companies speaking out for their employees, for the people who use our products, for the people who are affected.” There was also at the same time a very big backlash where people were saying, “Well, it’s great that companies like Amazon or Google are stepping up and using their platforms to speak out in support of the movement for black lives.” But at the same time, there has been a lot of criticism about the relationship between big techs, Silicon Valley and these platforms and the police.

One of the things I tried to talk about in the piece I wrote was how the very companies that are now tweeting out Black Lives Matter have had years of controversy and years of pushback from civil rights advocates saying that they’re furnishing tools to police that are making it harder for on-the-ground protesters, harder for people of color. One of the best examples is Salesforce. Salesforce and GitHub both tweeted out in support of Black Lives Matter, they both have contracts with Customs and Border Patrol. GitHub very controversially had a contract with ICE last year.

And so you end up with a situation where, “Oh, thanks so much for the support but you’re furnishing tech to police.” Similarly, Amazon has a product called Rekognition, which is spelled with a K, we don’t know why. Rekognition is a facial recognition product that’s been sold to law enforcement. There’s been a lot of talk about whether or not it is functional or just completely isn’t accurate.

A lot of research has showed that Rekognition actually performs less accurately on darker skinned faces, which leads to a whole other discussion about racial profiling and whether or not someone arrested and charged with a crime because of a recognition match, whether or not that actually is the person and whether or not the use of Amazon Rekognition could lead to a further stigmatization and a further over-policing of people of color if police departments where to use it.

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