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Malkia Cyril on Facebook’s Civil Rights Audit & How Amazon Sells Facial Recognition Tools to Police

Web ExclusiveMay 23, 2018
Media Options

In our extended interview with Malkia Cyril, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice and a Black Lives Matter activist in the Bay Area, we discuss Facebook’s plans to conduct a civil rights and privacy audit, and how 40 civil rights organizations, representing immigrants, people of color and Muslim Americans, have sent an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos demanding Amazon stop selling their facial recognition service to law enforcement. We also talk about the recent Senate approval of a bipartisan resolution to restore Obama-era FCC net neutrality rules.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, on Tuesday, the Center for Media Justice, the American Civil Liberties Union and more than two dozen civil rights organizations issued a letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, urging the company to stop selling its image recognition system to law enforcement. Amazon introduced the online service called Rekognition—spelled with a K—in 2016. Not long after, Amazon began pitching the technology to law enforcement agencies, saying the program could aid criminal investigations by recognizing suspects in photos and videos. It used a couple of early customers, like the Orlando Police Department in Florida and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon, to encourage other officials to sign up.

AMY GOODMAN: The groups write in a letter to Jeff Bezos, quote, “Amazon … encourages the use of Rekognition to monitor 'people of interest,' raising the possibility that those labeled suspicious by governments—such as undocumented immigrants or Black activists—will be targeted for Rekognition surveillance. Amazon has even advertised Rekognition for use with officer body cameras, which would fully transform those devices into mobile surveillance cameras aimed at the public.”

We continue our conversation now with Malkia Cyril, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, a Black Lives Matter activist in the Bay Area.

Malkia, can you talk about what exactly Rekognition is and what you’re demanding? That’s Rekognition with a K.

MALKIA CYRIL: Yeah. So, Amazon is getting into the business of selling cheap, real-time facial recognition software to law enforcement. This is extraordinarily dangerous. It is terrifying. Let’s think about this. Facial recognition, we already know that over half of U.S. adults are already in a law enforcement facial recognition database. That’s over half of all U.S. adults. It has nothing to do with having committed a crime. That’s just over half of all U.S. adults. I feel the need to say that three times. But, you know, we also know that facial recognition is less accurate—the darker your skin is, the less accurate it is. So, on black people, also on women, facial recognition is less accurate. So you have this inaccurate system, this system that is discriminatory, inherently discriminatory. The technology is discriminatory. And it’s underregulated, right? It has very little oversight. There are very little rules.

And Amazon, when you add the super-computing power behind Amazon, and you pass that on to already brutal and discriminatory law enforcement agencies—when I think of Florida, I think of Trayvon Martin and his murder, you know? When I think of Oregon, I think of, you know, in large measure, the rampant white supremacy that we see there. These are police departments, not just in Florida and Oregon, but across the country, that are already brutal, that are already unhinged, that are already unrestrained. And we’re going to pass to them discriminatory technology? I don’t think so.

We joined with 40 other civil rights organizations, spurred on by the ACLU of Northern California, to let Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO, know that we won’t stand for it. We urged them to step out of this business of discrimination.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, your organization and others also pressured another internet giant, Facebook, into conducting a civil rights and privacy audit. Could you talk about that, as well?

MALKIA CYRIL: Yes, yes. We’re very excited to be standing with organizations like Muslim Advocates, Color of Change, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and others to ask Facebook, urge Facebook, to take on a civil rights audit. They agreed. We’re really excited that civil rights leader or civil liberties leader Laura Murphy will take that on.

We’re concerned, though, because, at the same time, Facebook also agreed to conduct an audit of conservative bias, potential conservative bias on the platform. Now, here’s the problem. On the one hand, they’re saying that they’re going to investigate the rising white supremacist hate on the platform, the anti-black, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant hate, and the discriminatory treatment of those communities on the platform. On the other hand, they’re going to seek to protect hate on the platform. So, I don’t think those two things go together, unless there’s some type of new math that I don’t know about. But, really clearly, conservatives are not an oppressed group. They’re a group that’s currently in power. I don’t see why Facebook would be investigating bias against them. So we really urge them to be on the right side of history, to focus on the groups that have been historically discriminated against, to focus on the virulent anti-black, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment that we see on the platform, and let conservatives—actually, let’s hold conservatives accountable. Let’s not prop them up and prop up hate. You can’t fight hate with hate.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m just looking at a piece in Wired right now. It says, “Some cities have moved to limit use of surveillance. Berkeley, California, recently approved an ordinance requiring certain transparency and consultation steps when procuring or using surveillance technology, including facial recognition. The neighboring city of Oakland recently passed its own law to place oversight on local use of surveillance technology.” You live in Oakland. Can you talk about—


AMY GOODMAN: —what’s happening and what these regulations are? And also, the stunning issue, as particularly activists call for body cam video, so that police can be monitored, now the police are using facial recognition technology in their body cams? But answer the first first, what cities and states and towns can do.

MALKIA CYRIL: OK, OK. So, you know, cities across this country are adopting something known as municipal ordinances. Those municipal—anti-surveillance municipal ordinances. Those ordinances are intended to create use policies that restrain and restrict surveillance—the surveillance of local police departments. In particular, they’re restricting and making transparent how police departments obtain police technology, like facial recognition software, like drones, like stingray devices.

The positive thing about these ordinances is it forces police departments to disclose information when they are going to acquire these types of technologies. The challenge and the problem with these types of ordinances is that once you place a use policy on a brutal and vicious police department, you kind of give them a license, a way, to obtain this technology. We don’t want them to obtain the technology.

Now, we support—at the Center for Media Justice, we support folks organizing around these policies. We think that having some sort of policy is better than having none. Groups like Media Alliance and other organizations in the Bay Area have been leaders in that fight. But we also understand that there are real critiques around this tech—I mean, excuse me, around these ordinances. Groups like Stop LAPD Spying in Los Angeles have raised those concerns. So, we see both sides of the issue, and we’re really grateful that there are people in this country concerned enough about surveillance to pass local laws and also to fight for complete abolition. Both things are necessary.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Malkia, I wanted to ask you about another issue, also related to the internet, but in a different way. Last week, the Senate voted narrowly to reverse the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules in a victory for advocates of the open internet. The Senate bill would reimpose rules barring internet service providers from stopping or slowing down delivery of websites, and it would bar companies from charging extra fees for high-quality streaming video. Wednesday’s 52-to-47 vote, mostly along party lines, sets up a battle in the Republican-controlled House. I’m wondering your thoughts on it, but this is obviously, clearly, the Senate rebuking the Trump administration, because Trump’s FCC chair really sought to do away with net neutrality.

MALKIA CYRIL: Well, I think it’s also the Senate recognizing its constituents. Its constituents have said loud and clear that we want net neutrality. We hope now—the next step is that we have to win that same battle in the House. We understand, right? There are people all over this country, millions of people, who have clearly stated that they want an open internet. They are fighting for an open internet. They won’t stop until they have an open internet. And we see that.

In particular, look at the states. When we were blocked at the federal level, states across this country decided to develop their own versions of net neutrality rules, and passed them, California being one of the strongest. Right now in California, we’re about to have a “Raise Your Voice” day, you know, a lobby day, if you will, taking people on the bus, in particular those voices that have been excluded, like people of color, our Muslim communities, our immigrant communities, getting on the bus, going to Sacramento, to speak loudly in favor of one of the strongest state net neutrality bills to hit the floor.

The challenge here is this: The federal government is primed to try to block states from passing these kinds of strong net neutrality legislations. So, we need the states to step in and really fight for their residents through state net neutrality bills. And we need the House, especially our Tri-Caucus members in the House, to really step forward and represent and protect the online rights of communities of color and all those voices that have been excluded from mainstream media.

AMY GOODMAN: And why do these challenges to net neutrality, Malkia, particularly disproportionately affect people of color and poor people?

MALKIA CYRIL: I mean, we understand that mainstream media is concentrated in the hands of white men. I mean, let’s look at Sinclair media, you know, where we have a virulently right-wing media outlet buying up local news stations, buying up local outlets. We have Fox News. We actually have the rise of right-wing media. We have the FBI looking at InfoWars for evidence. I mean, that’s not real. That’s not a real news station. So, we have to be able to use the open internet to bypass those traditional gatekeepers, to bypass the cable and broadcast industry. We also have an extraordinarily powerful telecom industry, that’s spending billions of dollars lobbying D.C. for the kind of rules they want. But you know what? We have the people’s lobby. We have people power. And I’ll say that through that people power, we won at the Senate, we’ll win at the House, and we’ll win in the states.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Malkia Cyril, we want to thank you for being with, co-founder and executive director of the Center for Media Justice, Black Lives Matter activist in the Bay Area.

This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org.

MALKIA CYRIL: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks for joining us.

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