Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: Amazon Isn’t Just Tracking What’s in Your Shopping Cart

A police officer stands guard with a body camera attached to the shoulder.
BORIS HORVAT/Getty Images

Greetings, Future Tensers,

What’s faster than free two-day shipping? Amazon’s object and facial recognition software, which the company claims offers real-time detection across tens of millions of mugs, including “up to 100 faces in challenging crowded photos.” After its launch in late 2016, Amazon Web Services started marketing the visual surveillance tool (which it dubbed “Rekognition”) to law enforcement agencies around the country—including partnering directly with the police department in Orlando and a sheriff’s department in Oregon. But now, as April Glaser reports, civil rights groups are pushing back. Last week, a coalition including the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, sent an open letter expressing their “profound concerns” that governments could easily abuse the technology to target communities of color, undocumented immigrants, and political protestors. Though Amazon may not be the first contractor to partner with police on surveillance, it’s one of the first major tech companies to do so—and has us watching out for what the Amazon-ification of law enforcement may bring us next.

Rekognition wasn’t the only thing keeping Amazon in the news cycle. Last week, an Amazon Echo also made headlines after it was reported to have recorded a private conversation between a couple in Portland, Oregon, and then sent the recording to someone on their contact list. Though the incident seemed to come down to the A.I. misinterpreting a series of commands, Rachel Withers explains how it should be a reminder to Echo owners that their digital assistant Alexa is “always ready to listen.”

Surveillance and A.I. also play a big role in the latest installment of Future Tense Fiction, “Safe Surrender.” In it, Meg Elison tells the story of a hybrid human searching in the collective memories of a city—its inhabitants, its politics, its surveillance systems—to try to discover why their parents surrendered them when they were 3 days old. In response to the story, tech privacy expert Laura Moy explores the ways technology can be used to promote equity—or to preserve an unequal status quo.

Other things we read while thinking about Twitter’s good old days:

Spring cleaning: The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation may have flooded your inbox with privacy policy updates—but don’t delete them just yet, writes April Glaser. Instead, take the opportunity to delete accounts from the institutions you may have forgot were sitting on your data (looking at you, email from the sushi restaurant I ate at twice in 2016).

California Dreamin’: Aaron Mak reports on states like Vermont and California that, rather than waiting for Congress, are starting to take data privacy regulation into their own hands.

Block on blocking: Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern explains why a judge’s ruling that President Trump can’t block Twitter users represents “an extraordinary victory for free speech on the internet.”

Musk vs. media: Elon Musk’s attempts to discredit reporting about Tesla’s poor worker safety standards, assembly line delays, and Autopilot crashes represent some dangerous gaslighting, argues April Glaser.

Russians in your router: Josephine Wolff knows you didn’t restart your home’s router like the FBI asked. She explains why such an easy task might seem so arduous—and what that means for your cybersecurity.

Not yet a creeped-out owner of an overpriced paperweight,

Mia Armstrong
For Future Tense

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University.