We are writing as CUNY students, faculty, staff, and alumni to express our dismay at the CUNY Chancellor’s and Board Chairpersons’s public embrace of New York State's agreement to locate Amazon HQ2 in Long Island City, Queens.(1)
There are myriad financial concerns raised by this deal that stand to negatively impact our students, many of whom already face housing and food insecurity.(2) The current agreement promises Amazon billions of New York State’s public dollars in incentives. Given CUNY’s reliance on public funding and our already-strapped budget, we are outraged that the Chancellor and Board have promised to “commit our considerable college assets to ensure that Amazon has a strong pipeline for talent,” when there are no guarantees that this deal will offer CUNY anything other than a depleted bottom line.
This letter, however, centers on an ethical question. Amazon Web Services (AWS) accounts for 73% of Amazon’s operating income, and is widely considered the future of Amazon’s business model, outpacing its retail services in profitability.(3) AWS is the primary corporate host for U.S. government cloud computing services, with the largest number of FedRAMP authorizations of any technology company.(4) AWS serves as the I.T. hub for the Department of Homeland Security and I.C.E, and Amazon’s facilitation of the targeted surveillance and detention of immigrants has been widely reported.(5) Amazon has actively marketed its Rekognition facial recognition platform to law enforcement agencies and to I.C.E., despite documented issues with racial biases, and over the public objections of their own employees.(6)
CUNY is an institution that serves the people of New York City. Our students are drawn from immigrant communities, communities of color, and working class communities. These are the same communities that are the targets of AWS’s contracts with I.C.E., D.H.S., and municipal law enforcement agencies. Cloud networking, government data contracts, and surveillance services represent the engine behind Amazon’s future profitability. By committing CUNY to Amazon, the Board is committing our university to a corporation that puts our people, our families, and our neighbors directly in harm’s way.
We, the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of CUNY, write to express our opposition to any collaboration between CUNY and Amazon. We demand that our administration directly and publicly address the relationship between Amazon, I.C.E., and other law enforcement agencies, and the impact of these contracts on our communities. We demand that the Board of Trustees solicit the advice and support of faculty and students before committing our university’s resources to commercial interests. We demand that CUNY’s leadership prioritize the safety, stability, and wellbeing of our students and our neighborhoods over those of potential corporate partners.
NOTES:(1) “CUNY Board of Trustees Chairperson Thompson, Chancellor Rabinowitz Welcome Amazon to NYC, Emphasize University’s Commitment to Provide Pipeline for Talent,” 13 November 2018, http://www1.cuny.edu/mu/forum/2018/11/13/cuny-board-of-trustees-chairperson-thompson-chancellor-rabinowitz-welcome-amazon-to-nyc-emphasize-universitys-commitment-to-provide-pipeline-for-talent/. (2) Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech, “‘There Are People That Are Literally Starving’: College Students in Queens Facing Greater Risk of Food Insecurity,” QNS, 28 November 2018,https://qns.com/story/2018/11/28/people-literally-starving-college-students-queens-facing-greater-risk-food-insecurity/. (3) Therese Poletti, “The Engine for Amazon Earnings Growth Has Nothing to Do with E-Commerce,” MarketWatch, 29 April 2018, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-engine-for-amazon-earnings-growth-has-nothing-to-do-with-e-commerce-2018-04-26. (4) Empower LLC, Who’s Behind ICE?: The Tech and Data Companies Fueling Deportations, 2018, https://mijente.net/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/WHO%E2%80%99S-BEHIND-ICE_-The-Tech-and-Data-Companies-Fueling-Deportations_v3-.pdf. (5) Karen Hao, “Amazon Is the Invisible Backbone Behind ICE’s Immigration Crackdown,” MIT Technology Review, 22 October 2018, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/612335/amazon-is-the-invisible-backbone-behind-ices-immigration-crackdown/. (6) Jacob Snow, “Amazon’s Face Recognition Falsely Matched 28 Members of Congress With Mugshots,” ACLU, 26 July 2018, https://www.aclu.org/blog/privacy-technology/surveillance-technologies/amazons-face-recognition-falsely-matched-28; Lee Fang, “Amazon Promises ‘Unwavering’ Commitment to Police, Military Clients Using AI Technology,” The Intercept, 30 July 2018, https://theintercept.com/2018/07/30/amazon-facial-recognition-police-military/.