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No, Mayor de Blasio, We Can’t Rely on Amazon ‘To Put Moral Considerations Ahead of Profit’


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Mayor de Blasio at the Amazon announcement (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)


“I’m concerned about [New York] City being a sanctuary city, and your stated concern for New York City’s immigrants, and the contradiction of inviting one of ICE’s largest tech providers into our city.” That’s how Amy from Queens asked Mayor de Blasio about Amazon’s relationship with ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show last Friday.  

Mayor de Blasio told Amy, “If it turns out that Amazon has a contractual relationship with ICE, I’m certainly going to call on them to end that.” But he claimed that he did not have enough information to know for sure.

If the Mayor had watched the New York City Council hearing with Amazon executives (and his own economic development appointee) in December -- where we both asked about this relationship -- he would have little doubt that Amazon sells technology services to ICE, and is a willing for-profit partner in Trump’s deportation machine.

Anyone listening objectively to what Amazon’s VP of Public Policy, Brian Huseman, said under oath at the Council hearing would acknowledge that Amazon effectively affirmed it is providing facial recognition technology and possibly other cloud computing services to ICE.

As was reported in the Daily Beast in October, documents obtained by the Project on Government Oversight show that Amazon pitched its controversial facial recognition technology to ICE last summer. In addition, a group of Amazon employees, troubled by the relationship, called on the company to sever its ties to ICE.

Nonetheless, when Council Speaker Corey Johnson asked what relationship Amazon had with ICE at the City Council hearing, Amazon’s Huseman responded, “We think the federal government should have access to the best technology.”

Later in the hearing, we questioned Huseman again directly on this point, making clear that we interpreted Huseman’s answer to be an affirmation that Amazon provides facial recognition software to ICE -- and giving him the opportunity to correct the record. Huseman did not correct the record or deny the relationship. In response to further questioning from BuzzFeed News, Amazon again did not say that it does not work with ICE.

This was more than a “non-denial.” This was a non-denial that anyone listening objectively should take as a confirmation.

Amazon has expressed that it wants to be a “good neighbor” in Queens, one of the most heavily immigrant places in the country. But a good neighbor does not help to facilitate the deportations of family members and neighbors by a xenophobic president for corporate profit.

We also asked Huseman about an ACLU analysis showing that Amazon’s technology falsely matched 28 members of Congress to mugshots in a database. Even worse: the errors disproportionately mismatched people of color. Huseman did not express the slightest concern or remorse, or any intention to make certain their technology does not discriminate. Instead, Husemen placidly said, “We have not been able to replicate the ACLU’s analysis.”

If Mayor de Blasio had listened to the Amazon VP wave so nonchalantly at a study that reveals that the company’s technology might be used by ICE to round up people, some mistakenly, for deportation, perhaps he might have said something stronger than this to Amy last Friday:  

“I think that Amazon should, to the maximum extent possible, explain to people what is going on with this. Tech companies should start questioning themselves what types of government activity they want to participate in. They have to put moral considerations ahead of profit.”

There is absolutely no reason to believe that Amazon has any intention to put moral considerations ahead of profit. Or to voluntarily explain to people what is going on.

But Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo don’t need to rely on their goodwill. If Amazon wants to build a major new campus in Queens, the company should immediately disclose its full relationship with ICE -- and then end it immediately.

If the mayor and the governor are truly committed to New York City being a sanctuary city, they should not proceed in negotiations with Amazon until it does.

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Brad Lander and Carlos Menchaca are members of the New York City Council. Lander is the Council’s Deputy Leader for Policy; Menchaca chairs the Council’s Immigration Committee. On Twitter @bradlander & @cmenchaca.

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