An immigrant advocacy organization is pointing fingers at the tech industry for helping the United States government carry out its controversial immigration policies at the US-Mexico border.
Onstage at Recode’s Code Conference on Tuesday, RAICES CEO Jonathan Ryan said “the tech industry deserves a lot of blame for what is happening at our borders and assisting and enabling our government to bring to scale and into more efficiency this devastating violation of human rights.”
The Texas-based organization provides legal services to immigrant children, refugees and families. It famously rejected $250,000 from Salesforce last summer because the tech giant refused to cut its own contract with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). RAICES said at the time that Salesforce’s software provides “an operational backbone for the agency” and therefore “directly” supports its “inhumane and immoral policies,” referring to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy that caused thousands of family separations at the border.
Ryan defended that decision onstage. “It was an attempt at handwashing in response to the rightful uprising of Salesforce employees,” he said.
Salesforce announced in March 2018 that CBP would use three of its services “to modernize its recruiting process, from hire to retire, and manage border activities and digital engagement with citizens.”
Ryan also pointed at Palantir, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Dell, and Amazon for their reported contracts with CBP or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Ryan called out Amazon’s Andy Jassy, the CEO of Amazon Web Services. Jassy sat on the same stage Monday and spoke about working with the government. “If our government doesn’t have access to all of the most modern and sophisticated technology the private sector has, we’re in trouble,” Jassy said, while declining to comment on whether AWS works with ICE. “Any government department that’s following the law, we will serve.”
Ryan said he was “beside himself” listening to Jassy’s remarks, taking issue with this commonly cited claim from other executives as well that their role is to make sure the government has the best technology in the world, as an act of patriotism.
The tension between advocacy organizations and tech companies is representative of a larger sea change happening in the industry, and playing out at the tech conference. Executives are being asked hard questions about the impact of the technologies they’re unleashing and their policies.
While Jassy noted that “by and large, the vast majority of the company is supportive of serving the government,” there have been growing cries from employees, investors, civil rights groups and academic researchers over the company selling facial-recognition software to governments.
As such technology grows in popularity, it has come under increased scrutiny regarding its deployment, accuracy, and even where the faces come from that are used to train the systems. While there are currently no federal laws addressing how facial-recognition systems can be used, Jassy pushed for the government to do so. “If you want more protection, the federal government should regulate,” he said. “I strongly believe that just because technology could be misused, doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it.”
Ryan, however, thinks tech companies have more responsibility they need to own: “If tech wants to walk hand-in-hand with our government in this experience in tyranny, then go for it, but we will be here when the music is over,” Ryan added.
— CNN’s Rachel Metz contributed reporting