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Amazon ring doorbell

Amazon's Ring doorbell, equipped with a camera and machine-learning capabilities, is installed outside a home in Los Angeles on October 21, 2018. (Photo: Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

'Until the FTC Acts, No One Is Safe': Groups Urge Ban on Corporate Facial Surveillance

"For years now, the FTC has failed the public by abandoning their power and authority to address these dangerous surveillance and data practices."

Jessica Corbett

Citing Amazon's practices as an alarming example, dozens of advocacy groups on Thursday urged U.S. regulators to outlaw corporate use of facial surveillance technology, "ban continuous surveillance in places of public accommodation, and stop industry-wide data abuse."

"Rule-making is needed to stop widespread systematic surveillance, discrimination, lax security, tracking of individuals, and the sharing of data."
—Letter to FTC

"Rule-making is needed to stop widespread systematic surveillance, discrimination, lax security, tracking of individuals, and the sharing of data," nearly 50 civil rights, racial justice, and anti-surveillance organizations argue in a letter to the Federal Trade Commission, warning that "until the FTC acts, no one is safe."

"While Amazon's smart home ecosystem, facial surveillance technology, and e-learning devices provide a good case study," they write, "these rules must extend beyond this one technology corporation to include any entity collecting, using, selling, and/or sharing personal data."

The group makes the case that "pervasive surveillance entrenches Amazon's monopoly," putting the company "in a position to abuse its dominance to the detriment of consumers, communities, and even bystanders who have no commercial relationship with it at all."

As the letter details, the organizations' concerns relate to several of Amazon's products:

One product line alone, Amazon Ring, includes doorbell and floodlight cameras, mailbox sensors, car cams, and soon indoor drones. These Ring devices collectively surveil millions of people—not only inside a purchaser's home but extending to outside public and private spaces, including sidewalks where someone may walk their dog, and to neighboring yards where young children may play.

And that's just one of the product lines in Amazon's smart home ecosystem. The technology giant also sells Alexa, Amazon's voice assistant; Echo, Amazon's smart speakers that facilitate communication with Alexa; and Sidewalk, Amazon's consumer-sourced network. While users unwittingly generate troves of lucrative data sets, Amazon owns the data and capitalizes on the insights generated by them.

The letter highlights various harms from Amazon's growing "surveillance empire"—specifically:

  • Amazon's Wi-Fi enabled devices have been shown to be deeply insecure on multiple occasions; Amazon Ring's Neighbors App gamifies the racial profiling of Black and brown people by facilitating and rewarding self-deputized onlookers to police their neighborhood and escalate reports of "suspicious people" based on who they feel belongs there or not;
  • Amazon collects personal information from children under 13;
  • Amazon's smart surveillance ecosystem sweeps up unprecedented amounts of data that can easily be paired with facial surveillance technology; and
  • In over 2,000 cities across the country, Amazon partners with police and fire departments.

"These harms directly result from the technology giant's unfair and deceptive mass collection, use, or sharing of people's data," the groups say. "And it is further deceptive as it's not possible for Amazon to garner meaningful consent, as people can't know or judge the far-reaching future harms."

They add that "Amazon's power forces users with no bargaining power to accept onerous and objectionable terms of use, such as granting Amazon the right to use data taken from their private lives for biometric data and AI training."

"Addressing these abuses, which are widespread and generalized across the industry, fits within the FTC's rule-making authority," the letter explains, "and the agency derives additional authority to protect against these abuses from the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act."

In a statement Thursday, Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, one of the rights groups behind the letter, noted that "for years, Amazon and other Big Tech corporations have pretty much gotten away with anything when it comes to their data practices."

"Lack of legislation and regulation allowed these corporations to amass unheard of amounts of power that was then used to surveil us, record everything we do, track our whereabouts, and then shared with cops," she said. "Law enforcement doesn't need to create its own nationwide warrantless surveillance network when they have Amazon to do it for them."

"Congress absolutely must pass legislation to address these issues, but regulatory agencies need to do their part too. People's lives are at stake," Greer continued. "For years now, the FTC has failed the public by abandoning their power and authority to address these dangerous surveillance and data practices."

Echoing previous progressive praise of President Joe Biden's appointee to head the agency, Greer said that "with incoming FTC Chair Lina Khan, we have a chair that cares about reigning in Big Tech."

"Any real effort toward this goal must address these corporations' widespread use of surveillance and the resulting harms," she added. "Ultimately, if the FTC commissioners care about protecting anyone from Big Tech, creating rules to ban surveillance practices and stop data abuses must be a top priority."

Fight for the Future is a key leader of calls for U.S. retailers to end the use of facial recognition technology—or surveillance systems that attempt to identify individuals, but have been shown to be flawed and biased—in stores, and for Congress to pass the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act that progressive lawmakers reintroduced last month.

In May, Amazon announced a one-year extension of its expiring moratorium on police use of its facial recognition software, Rekognition, "until further notice."

Organizers emphasized the role of public pressure in the decision, with Greer saying at the time that "Amazon knows they are on the wrong side of this issue. They only made this announcement because racial justice, privacy rights, and worker advocacy groups are demanding a permanent ban of their racist facial recognition technology."

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