How big tech empowers racist police surveillance

7:05-min read

Hello from 20 Minutes into the Future. In this edition we’re looking at the surveillance services big tech sells to police departments. And how the whole ecosystem is deeply racist.

Big tech has never met a crisis it didn't want to monetise. Or at least use to burnish their reputations. Companies like Amazon, IBM, and Microsoft would have you believe that they support Black Lives Matter. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. Big tech plays an outsized role in the current loathsome state of law enforcement. 

Silicon Valley’s surveillance arsenal

Here's a sample, based largely on the ongoing work of Caroline Haskins, of just some of the services being used against peaceful protestors right now:

BriefCam is a service being sold as “accurate face recognition can be leveraged to rapidly pinpoint people of interest using digital images extracted from the video or from external sources.” They’ve also selling the ability to monitor social distancing, face mask adoption, and even claiming to be able to identify people despite face masks. When asked about BriefCam, Senator Ron Wyden said, “This product appears to offer exactly the kind of indiscriminate surveillance that makes so many Americans concerned about government use of facial recognition technology.”

Banjo is sold as an “event detection engine” that creates a “world feed” based on publicly available social media posts and attributable location data. Damien Patton, CEO of Banjo, once helped the KKK shoot-up a synagogue.

Clearview AI is a facial recognition service empowered by illegal scraping of content posted to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter. Clearview is currently being sued by the ACLU. Oh and it’s CEO, Cam-Hoan Ton-That, is best friends with the alt-right scum that concocted the Pizzagate conspiracy.

PIPS technology creates traffic cameras that “capture images of license plates, allowing police to potentially track the movement of a person throughout a city or region.”

CLEAR by Thompson Reuters “combines data from cellphones, license plate readers, and real-time arrest records. In aggregate, this data makes it faster and easier for police track and arrest suspects.”

Securonet is “a surveillance tool that lets police upload cellphone footage, integrate it with CCTV footage, and visualize it on a map.”

Axon provides body cameras to police departments across the US and abroad. 888 police officers within Minneaplpgis alone wear them. Body cameras seem like a good idea but cases using them as evidence overwhelmingly clear police of wrongdoing because the footage privileges the officer's point of view.

Arxys is a video management tool that provides motion detection and analytics to CCTV footage.

Stingrays imitate cellphone towers and track the location of cellphone users. They have been used to target BLM protestors for years.

Predator drones, the same tech that the military has used to assassinate targets for years, were flown over the initial Minneapolis protests by Customs and Border Protection. Similarly the military and FBI flew RC-26B planes over DC protests.

As I’ve mentioned previously, Baltimore has an on-again, off-again relationship with a company called Persistent Surveillance Systems that uses wide-area aerial drones in an almost pre-crime fashion.

Ring, Amazon's home surveillance company has extensive contracts with many police departments. These contracts allow officers to request footage without obtaining a warrant or consent from home owners. Police also get perks if they convince people to download Ring's neighbourhood watch app, Neighbors. Since the recent protests have started Amazon has signed 29 additional contracts with police departments to leverage Ring’s services. Much of the concern around Ring also applies to Google Nest and Tesla’s smart cameras too.

Rekognition, also from Amazon, “can identify faces in videos and photos, and Amazon marketing materials promoted using Rekognition in conjunction with police body cameras in real time.” This despite the fact that it overwhelmingly misidentifies people of colour especially. Amazon has agreed to a two-year moratorium on this service. Critics rightly say that’s not good enough. Especially given how long they’ve been fighting Amazon on the issue.

Much of the cloud-services Amazon sells to ICE are also used by law enforcement agencies writ large. The scope of Amazon's surveillance operation is staggering.

Microsoft “powers the New York Police Department’s Domain Awareness System, which organizes street camera footage, license plate photos, 911 call data, and other police information.” Until recently it was also selling facial recognition tech to police departments. Like Amazon it has temporarily paused the sale of that tech. And also, like Amazon, it’s neck deep in ICE contracts too. Employees are currently protesting… let’s hope they have better luck and stamina this time around.

IBM has been lauded for not only pausing the sale of facial recognition tech but also their research of it. Critics say this is little more than brand washing since it has little impact on the company’s bottom line. Haskins has also pointed out that neither Amazon, Microsoft, or IBM have revealed the full extent of which police departments were clients. And, of course, IBM still offers many predictive policing services like COPLINK that are continuing unabated.

And, of course, there’s Gotham by Palantir. They literally know everything about you. But more on them next week.

I wanted to write more but this letter is already late. Silicon Valley’s most shipped product isn’t tech. It’s hypocrisy. You don’t get to express solidarity with black lives matter while enabling police brutality and the surveillance state.

And for those of you that are putting in the hard work and are protesting than please take steps to protect your smartphone, minimise your surveillance risk, record your encounters with the police, and be aware of other surveillance risks too. Stay vigilant and stay safe.

Dig deeper

You can read more about how big tech exacerbates racism with these stories from the 20 Minutes into the Future archive:

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10 stories this week

  1. Unions save lives. This feature puts lives at risk.
    Facebook pitched new tool allowing employers to suppress words like "unionize" in workplace chat product (The Intercept)

  2. Wendi C. Thomas on the decades of surveillance prominent black journalists and activists have endured.
    The Police Have Been Spying on Black Reporters and Activists for Years. I Know Because I’m One of Them. (ProPublica)

  3. My friend Rina Atienza has written the best thing you’re going to read about blackout Tuesday. It contextualises it within not just social commentary and protest movements but also art history, media theory, and religion. Powerful stuff.
    The Tragedy of the Common Black Square (Holy Hand Grenades)

  4. This is one small thing social media could do to fix their mess. A better thing would be to pivot their business models and algorithms away from outrage.
    Social networks are broken. Here’s the secret to rebuilding trust

  5. This isn’t good enough. Facebook employees you have to keep protesting. You have to do better.
    Facebook won't promote race war groups, but they can still exist (Input)

  6. Internet access is a healthcare issue. Ajit Pai and the FCC are putting poor people at even greater risk than they already are. All to save big telco a few extra bucks.
    When Health Care Moves Online, Many Patients Are Left Behind (Wired)

  7. Zuckerberg has repeatedly been on the wrong side of history. Like when he lied under oath to Congress about election interference. Like when his poor leadership led to the death of nearly 7000 people. And like now when he continues to do nothing about Trump spreading stochastic terrorism on his platform. And like now when says black lives matter but still runs ads threatening violence against protestors.
    Mark Zuckerberg is on the wrong side of history (Fast Company)

  8. The most important job in big tech shouldn’t be outsourced “But if moderation is so important, it isn’t treated as such. The overwhelming majority of the 15,000 people who spend all day deciding what can and can’t be on Facebook don’t even work for FB.“
    Facebook needs 30,000 of its own content moderators, says a new report (MIT Technology Review)

  9. The far-right propaganda machine is in full-swing.
    'Antifa bus' hoaxes are spreading panic through small-town America (The Verge)

  10. Tim Bray gives his first long interview since quitting Amazon in disgust. “They can only do that by having a disempowered workforce. That kind of goodness is not free. At some point, the cost has to be counted.”
    Welcome to the United States of Amazon (Tortoise)

Sick and tired of big tech behaving badly? 20 Minutes into the Future is about holding the bastards to account. One way we can do that is by spreading the word of their misdeeds.


Bastard watch

Senator Josh Hawley is one of the most disingenuous Republicans in Congress today. At first blush he sounds like a potential bipartisan ally in the fight against big tech. But his rationale for dismantling big tech is always wrong. He’s a vocal supporter for curtailing social media for example but his desire to do so is based on the abject lie that it suppresses conservative voices. His tirades are part of Trump’s re-election strategy nothing more.

Kindred spirits

Joy Adowaa Buolamwini is a MIT-based computer scientist that has lead groundbreaking work on the racial injustice at the heart of facial recognition platforms. She’s also founded the Algorithmic Justice League to challenge that bias far and wide. If you’re not already familiar with her work then I recommend you watch the video below.

We need more Joys and less Joshs working with tech today if we want a better tomorrow.

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Good night and good future,

20 Minutes into the Future is a critical look at how technology is shaping our lives today. And what actions we can take for a better tomorrow. If you're not already a subscriber and found this newsletter worth your while then please sign up.

My name is Daniel Harvey and I write 20 Minutes into the Future. I’m a product designer and have written for Fast Company, Huffington Post, The Drum, & more. If you're pissed about the current state of tech and want to see us do better then you’ve found a kindred spirit.

You can email me at or follow me on Twitter @dancharvey.