Did the ACLU discover that 28 members of Congress were criminals? Not exactly.

The future is now! And it's kind of scary.

Amazon's come a long way from being the little online bookstore that could. Now, in addition to delivering your packages, running your smart home features, and telling you what to wear, it may also soon be helping the government track every move you make.

A few items on that list are a little creepy, but it's really that last one that's setting off red flags with people and groups like the ACLU concerned with civil liberties.


In 2016, the company launched Amazon Rekognition, its flagship image recognition software. The basic premise was that you could take a picture, run it through the software, and it'd respond by telling you what the picture was. The example used in the rollout was a photo of a dog. Awww!

Fast forward to 2018, and Rekognition has gotten a few upgrades. It's even being tested out by a handful of police departments. The company boasts about the technology's ability to detect, track, and analyze photos or videos of people. They refer to it as "high-quality person tracking" and "activity detection."

"Activating a city-wide facial recognition system could be as easy as flipping a switch," the ACLU's Matt Cagle warns in a YouTube video. "Body cams were designed to keep officers accountable to the public, but facial recognition turns these devices into surveillance machines."

The ACLU has been trying to sound the alarm about the dangers of facial recognition, and it might have just found a way to get the attention of people who can help: Congress.

It's unlikely a profit-driven company like Amazon will simply choose to abandon this admittedly impressive and lucrative tech on its own. Even if it did, another company would surely swoop in with its own version. To protect people from the obvious abuses that can come with far-reaching surveillance, it's going to take an act of Congress to put restrictions on how this technology can be used.

To prove a point, the ACLU ran photos of every member of Congress through the Rekognition software, comparing it with criminal databases. What they found was shocking.  

The analysis incorrectly matched the faces of 28 members of Congress with mugshots.

In other words, not only might this new software be used as the backbone of a new surveillance state, but it also might flag you as a criminal. That's not ideal! Thankfully, it caught congresspeople's attention, with a number of senators and representatives issuing statements about the experiment.

The ACLU's study also revealed another issue with the technology: People of color are disproportionately likely to get a false match.

Six members of the Congressional Black Caucus were falsely matched to mugshots. Despite that just 20% of members of Congress are people of color, 39% of false matches were people of color.

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Illinois), who was one of the politicians wrongly matched by Rekognition, signed a letter with other congresspeople to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos expressing concerns. Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images.

"It’s not hard to imagine a police officer getting a 'match' indicating that a person has a previous concealed-weapon arrest, biasing the officer before an encounter even begins," the ACLU's Jacob Snow wrote on the group's blog. "Or an individual getting a knock on the door from law enforcement, and being questioned or having their home searched, based on a false identification."

Snow continued:

"An identification — whether accurate or not — could cost people their freedom or even their lives. People of color are already disproportionately harmed by police practices, and it’s easy to see how Rekognition could exacerbate that. A recent incident in San Francisco provides a disturbing illustration of that risk. Police stopped a car, handcuffed an elderly Black woman and forced her to kneel at gunpoint — all because an automatic license plate reader improperly identified her car as a stolen vehicle."

But there are some simple things you can do to prevent facial recognition software from being used the wrong way.

For one, you can join the ACLU's efforts to petition Amazon to do the right thing and stop selling surveillance equipment to the government. You can also donate to the ACLU to help fund its efforts to fight back against government overreach and threats to our privacy.

The most important thing you can do is to call up your representatives at the federal, state, and local levels. Let them know that this is something that concerns you and that you'd like to see action taken to make sure this technology doesn't get misused.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
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Increasingly customers are looking for more conscious shopping options. According to a Nielsen survey in 2018, nearly half (48%) of U.S. consumers say they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment.

But while many consumers are interested in spending their money on products that are more sustainable, few actually follow through. An article in the 2019 issue of Harvard Business Review revealed that 65% of consumers said they want to buy purpose-driven brands that advocate sustainability, but only about 26% actually do so. It's unclear where this intention gap comes from, but thankfully it's getting more convenient to shop sustainably from many of the retailers you already support.

Amazon recently introduced Climate Pledge Friendly, "a new program to help make it easy for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products." When you're browsing Amazon, a Climate Pledge Friendly label will appear on more than 45,000 products to signify they have one or more different sustainability certifications which "help preserve the natural world, reducing the carbon footprint of shipments to customers," according to the online retailer.

Amazon

In order to distinguish more sustainable products, the program partnered with a wide range of external certifications, including governmental agencies, non-profits, and independent laboratories, all of which have a focus on preserving the natural world.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Welcometoterranova and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Welcometoterranova-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.