Flip on the evening news and listen to any major cable news channel right now. You can hear the war drums beating already. Buffoons with microphones chanting their war cry on live television – psyching up the American people for yet another military intervention. Pundits ask open-ended questions all day to rile up the country’s imagination:
“Is Russia preparing to invade Ukraine? And other questions”
“What would a Russian invasion of Ukraine look like?”
Harrowing news headlines dominate the media that suggest a potential Russian invasion into Ukraine:
“U.S. Intelligence Sees Russian Plan for Possible Ukraine Invasion: An invasion force could include 175,000 troops…”
“U.S. intelligence agencies point to potential Russian invasion of Ukraine within a month’s time”
“US alleges that Russian intelligence officials are recruiting current and former Ukrainian government officials to take over the government in Kyiv.”
“US and UK accuse Russia of planning to topple Ukraine’s president.”
“Ukraine taking UK claim of Russian invasion plot seriously, says adviser”
Notably absent from these headlines or news stories is reliable evidence for all these claims and allegations. In fact, the word “evidence” is placed in quotation marks unironically in the first sentence of this news story: “Ukraine has said it has ‘evidence‘ Russia was behind a massive cyber-attack that knocked out key government websites last week…”
Nonetheless, we’re bombarded with days upon days of, well… speculation. But fortunately, speculation is all you need to get pundits foaming at the mouth with bloodlust.
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, for example, has been bossing around and pointing fingers at senators, diplomats, countries, and presidents alike: “We’ve been having trouble with Germany. We’ve been having trouble with France. What does the president need to do to get Germany and France in line? Get them in line to help prevent an invasion in Ukraine!” He calls Biden “weak” in front of Putin and Xi Jinping. He insists that must hold Germany accountable for blocking the transfer of arms to Ukraine.
Alexander Vindman, a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel involved in Trump’s impeachment, was particularly brash:
“I think it’s all but certain in my mind that there’s going to be a large European war on the order of magnitude of World War II, with air power, sea power, massive ground force offensives, and my concern right now is making sure that the United States is postured for that outcome. I think there’s little to be done to avoid it at this point.”
How does MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace respond to this reckless tirade? She calmly sits and nods her head in obsequious motion. She doesn’t ask a single question to challenge this bold claim.
Day in and day out, these spineless news pundits, often nothing more than lobotomized parakeets trained by the Department of Defense, squawk ad nauseum for our government to take a militaristic stance against Russia.
Then, these pundits love to play the good guy: “Well, wedon’t wantwar, no one wants war, but…” They casually paint themselves as these level-headed, well-reasoned analysts, when in fact they’re impetuous lunatics that love to pontificate about sending people to die in war from the safety of their illuminated desks, well-decorated chambers, and multi-million dollar salaries.
Lastly, they dismiss any critique of their outlandish rants. Anyone who dares attempt to contradict this narrative is deemed a Russian asset and is disloyal to the United States.
It’s heartbreaking for me to see that Tucker Carlson and Republican representatives are virtually the only people to pose even a minor challenge to the militaristic saber-rattling spewed out by MSNBC. Silence even from “the Squad” and Bernie Sanders alike.
There is cause for heightened awareness and caution in Ukraine. Sure, Russia is organizing troops and military equipment along the border of Russia and Ukraine (about 100,000 troops currently). They are free to perform military drills anywhere they want on their soil. And sure, the presence of this equipment may be slightly provocative, but if you follow the expansion of NATO over the last couple of decades, you’ll notice that Russia’s deployments are defensive.
NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is a massive, intergovernmental, military alliance comprised of 30 countries (originally 12) between North America and Europe. NATO members spent almost 60% of the global nominal total of military spending in 2021. The member list increases year by year, moving further and further east as it attempts to entice new members into the organization. Since 2021, NATO has floated “aspiring” members such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and, you guessed it, Ukraine.
The alliance is noteworthy, because Article Five of their treaty states that if an armed attack occurs against one member state, then it’s considered an attack against all members, and other members must come to their aid if possible. Ask yourself honestly: if you noticed this cold-war relic of a military alliance slowly creeping closer and closer to your doorstep, wouldn’t you want to defensively set up some troops and perform some drills on your border?
Not to mention, while Russia is “allegedly” initiating cyberattacks, “plotting” to overthrow the Ukrainian president (installed by the U.S.), and “infiltrating” the Ukrainian government with belligerents and hell-raisers, the United States is, in broad daylight, sending arms and military equipment to Ukraine. Of course Russia is going to feel threatened and start lining up in defense.
A binding agreement that Ukraine can never join NATO.
NATO arms out of Eastern Europe
Ban on NATO missiles within striking distance
Autonomy for Eastern Ukraine
The United States and NATO should agree to the first three, but the most important one is number one. It is a reasonable request. NATO does not need further expansion. The United States does not have anything to gain from forcing or encouraging Ukraine to join NATO. The U.S. has 900 military bases around the world. What – our government wants to make it so that NATO comprises of 70% of global military spending instead of just 60%?
Number two dates back to a gentleman’s agreement between Fmr. Secretary of State James Baker and Fmr. President of USSR Mikhail Gorbachev promising that NATO wouldn’t expand eastward (this statement is a bit controversial. Baltic states and Eastern bloc states claim it’s Russian propaganda). Unfortunately, this discussion wasn’t codified, so the U.S. ignores it.
Number three points out that Russia does not have missiles within striking distance of the U.S., so it should be reciprocated. This will actually restore the INF Treaty that was in place since the Cold War before Trump abandoned it in 2019.
Discussing number four is beyond the scope of this piece.
Naturally, the U.S. has identified these demands as “non-starters.”
Russia is not asking for NATO or the U.S. to disarm completely. It is not asking for NATO to be disbanded. It is simply asking for NATO/U.S. to remove their threatening positioning.
The U.S. and NATO have the power to resolve this conflict diplomatically. Agreement to some of these terms would be steps toward disarmament and disengagement. Unfortunately, our government and representatives are largely bought off by Raytheon and have a flourishing $700 billion military budget at their disposal, so this outcome is unlikely.
The Biden administration claims: “let there be no doubt if Putin [invades Russia], Russia will pay a heavy price.” Who knows what kind of “heavy price” he is referring to. Pentagon officials love to let their imaginations run wild on how this “heavy price” will manifest, but they never elucidate the hidden cost of all these macabre fantasies: time (that we don’t have), resources (that we don’t have), political attention (that is currently frayed), tax dollars (that could be spent elsewhere), and most importantly, potentially the lives of human beings.
America is already a gushing wound – spewing blood out of every pore, forming serpentine streams of pus, and gigantic globes of lesions – with no suture or tourniquet in sight. Children hooked up to ventilators. Addiction. Suicide. Poverty. Homelessness. Stagnant wages. Underinsured and uninsured. Unparalleled political division. Trillions of medical and student loan debt. Unfathomable wealth inequality. Any extension abroad will certainly do us in. Our leaders are so out of touch and delirious that they are going to send even more people to die when Americans are already dropping like flies. Apparently, our own internal problems haven’t killed enough Americans, we need to add a few thousand more human bodies to the funeral pyre.
And here’s what I say to Joe Scarborough, Alex Vindman, Nicole Wallace, Bill Kristol, Jen Psaki, Keith Olbermann, and the rest of them: Fine, you want this? You go fight. Enlist your significant other and enlist your kids, too. Lace up your boots for basic training. Grab your gun and go fight. Pay for it with your salary, too. Just leave me out of your psycho trip of military domination.
Strange – it’s harder to justify losing human lives when it’s your own, isn’t it?
This is Part 4 in a series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part, second part and third part.
Amazon has formed an uncomfortable, yet formidable, relationship with the government by creating surveillance technology, providing cloud storage for the government, and using its excess wealth to inordinately influence politics and policy.
On top of this, the company strives to intimately understand its customers by harvesting consumer data at unprecedented levels – ironically, without the consent or the acknowledgement of its customers.
One of Amazon’s newest privacy-shattering fetishes is developing artificial intelligence in order to enhance the shopping experience for its customers.
Amazon has developed its own search engine, A9, in order to expedite this endeavor. Like it or not, if you’ve done a search on Amazon then you’ve used the search engine. A9 claims to create a simple and convenient shopping experience for its customers.
It uses data from customers’ previous purchases and offers suggestions when users enter their queries. A9 also uses ranking algorithms to present the most relevant results to the user. It can remember everything that you’ve ever searched for, and it has the right to share that information with its retail sector. The A9 website proudly states:
“Our work starts long before a customer types a query. We’ve been analyzing data, observing past traffic patterns, and indexing the text describing every product in our catalog before the customer has even decided to search. As soon as we see the first keystroke, we’re ready with instant suggestions and a comprehensive set of search results.”
A9 is looking to expand its search capabilities to include visual searches. Amazon bought out a small startup called Snaptell to embark on its visual search journey. The visual search works by “overlaying relevant information over camera-phone views of the world around [our customers].” In other words, it allows customers to take pictures of CDs, DVDs, or video games and the app will identify the product and provide ratings and pricing information.
Amazon also acquired the website Goodreads in 2013. Amazon regularly reviews a customer’s highlighted words and notes in order to figure out what interests them. The company then sends suggestions to the person’s Kindle for e-book recommendations. It provides the same function when items are added to their cart using a collaborative filtering engine (CFE).
Even more troubling, in a letter to shareholders in 2017, CEO Jeff Bezos describes how Amazon Web Services (AWS) clients would potentially have access to these AI learning frameworks.
Many data collection schemes like clickstream analytics, data warehousing, recommendation engines, and fraud detection are all done through cloud-computing. Developers from other companies that do business with Amazon may have the ability to use the same deep-learning tracking software because of their adoption of AWS.
The companies already using AWS run the gamut, from McDonald’s, Netflix, Adobe and Capital One to GE and Pinterest. All of these companies have a vested interest in tracking the habits of their customers and will likely, and gladly, pounce on the opportunity.
Amazon candidly talks about its approach to gathering information about its customers. In fact, the company even compare its collection of information to a partner who learns more about you as your relationship grows. Of course, in this case it’s a one-way interaction: You don’t get to learn anything about how Amazon operates.
In the letter, Bezos candidly referenced the underbelly to which this series has referred: “Much of what we do with machine learning happens beneath the surface. Machine learning drives our algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deals recommendations, merchandising placements, fraud detection, translations, and more.”
“Though less visible,” he continued, “much of the impact of machine learning will be of this type – quietly but meaningfully improving core operations.” The type of AI to which he’s referring is focused on human behavior and habit.
That’s right: much of what they do with machine learning happens beneath the surface, so the general public has no idea of the company’s newest initiatives to expand its power.
If A9 and its counterparts represent such a glorious, reputable and helpful piece of technology, and if its intentions are truly noble and pure, then why are the majority of Amazon customers blissfully unaware of its existence? Amazon continues to be opaque about its involvement in our government and in our lives: in its sale of facial recognition technology to our government, in its supply of clandestine cloud service to national security agencies and local municipalities, in its manipulation of our political process, and our private data as well. Amazon should at least make its intentions and its actions transparent to its customers.
Amazon has access to a troubling amount of industry information: lucrative private contracts with local governments; private consumer data; financial resources to lobby political leaders; business deals to sell surveillance technology; and a massive fortune and wealth to boot. Amazon remains one of the most powerful and influential companies on Earth, and Jeff Bezos the richest man in history. He and the company have the ability and influence to change our world for the better. But instead this empire continues to consolidate power and wealth for itself.
Amazon’s continued occult actions must be brought to light so that a true examination of its power can continue.
these surreptitious usurpers – sneakily stealing slickly seizing swiftly swiping slowly sucking like a brazen, sepulchral, slimy squid
these surreptitious usurpers – are secretive and prodigious grotesquely suspicious subliminally vicious sickeningly supercilious conceitedly superior and vacuous
these surreptitious usurpers – with uncompromising ruthlessness with staggering thoughtlessness with rapacious ravenousness distressingly remorseless act secretly behind subtle veils of seduction
and these surreptitious usurpers, with silvery scales of a basilisk with hearts, souls, and spirits of stone with slithering tongues
spew slim veils of supposed reality spread darkness and perplexity sell story after story send missiles for perverted glory consolidate their ascendancy praise their own pathology
these surreptitious usurpers submerging us in seas of deceit severing off our self-sustaining feet subjugating and coercing as they cheat stomping swiftly up the staircase to our defeat almost complete
and the stupefied slaves – slumbering and primitive docile and submissive stolid and passive yet massive
soon the scales will slide from our eyes the stupefied slaves will start to realize and we’ll take you by surprise overcome your lies and send you to your demise
The coronavirus is a not only a biological virus. It is a cultural virus. The virus is very deft at exposing our culture’s and our society’s grave shortcomings. It is causing much hardship, distress, and suffering, and in its wake, it is putting the rotting infrastructure of a decaying empire on full display.
We spend approximately 20% of our GDP on health care, but fail to even provide enough ventilators to our fellow, infected Americans. Our nurses are posting videos of themselves crying on live TV because they can get the appropriate amount of PPE. Jeff Bezos’ net worth skyrockets by a grotesque $24 billion in a couple of weeks, while Amazon will not provide adequate protection to its warehouse workers, and in fact will fire organizers trying to bring attention to that fact. Even more frightening, Whole Foods (owned by Bezos) is using a heat map to track employees to detect unionization activity. Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen gets to leave prison because of the COVID-19 threat, while many non-violent individuals in jail, many of them not even yet on trial, cannot be released from prison. Our leaders, instead of appropriately warning the American public of the dangers of COVID-19, sold stock while they were privately informed about the severity of the virus.
It is particularly disgusting that world’s rich continues to get lavishly richer, while a record number of 22 million Americans have applied for unemployment in a couple of weeks. That’s right. While most people are struggling to make ends meet, while many are losing their shitty jobs (and, along with it, their access to health care), and not even to able to pay their rent, the net worth of world’s top 10 billionaires net worth increasedby a shocking $51 billion dollars. That’s with a b.
Meanwhile, our government is completely incapable of providing even the most basic needs to our citizens. Our callous and feckless leaders are staggeringly out of touch with the daily lives of even a moderately-affluent American. Steven Minuchin, the Treasury Secretary, recently suggested that Americans can live off $1,200 for 10 weeks. Nancy Pelosi, whose net worth is $16 million, recently talked about eating ice cream in front of expensive kitchen appliances, meanwhile Americans are forced to line up their cars for food distribution.
The virus is causing us to question a variety of standards of practice in our country. Why are people held in prison just because they can’t pay bail and they haven’t even gone to trial yet? Why are innocent children held in inhumane, unsanitary cages while they await deportation? How is it that we spend way more per capita for health care over any other developed country and we still can’t test everyone in the United States for COVID-19? Why is it that rich and famous people like Tom Hanks, Idris Elba, and NBA stars can get immediate testing and treatment, but the average, unsuspecting American is going to have to pay a deductible first? Don’t grocery store clerks and delivery drivers, who in the matter of weeks went from “low-skill labor” to “heroes who deserve hazard pay,” deserve a decent, living wage as well? Do we really need to stuff kids in a cement box for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week? Do we really need to keep voting for the “lesser of two evils” every election year?
Parents and guardians are now wondering: should teachers get paid more for dealing with our kids all day, all the time? Impostors like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz are being exposed for the frauds they are. Once revered media figures, like Ellen DeGeneres, are being exposed for the selfish and tone-deaf pricks they are.
The virus is holding up a mirror, and the image in the reflection is fucking disgusting. Many people are finally willing to accept it. Unfortunately, many also are not. It is certainly dark times. But, this is our opportunity to step up and create something that actually works for the everyday American.
In response to this cultural virus, our culture is producing antibodies – antibodies that are activating our immune system and igniting an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response will manifest into populist movements. We are seeing the tinder for this: the now disenfranchised Bernie voters (which represent the majority of under 40, Latino, Arab, and young African-Americans); the worker’s strikes at Whole Foods, Amazon, Instacart, and hospitals; staggering levels of unemployment; and rent strikes. While all of this is going on, our government is unable, or unwilling, to respond rationally or urgently. Let us not forget about the smoldering ashes of the Occupy Wall Street and continuing efforts of the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter movements. Those are just a few of the signs.
These populist movements can manifest in mainly two ways – good or bad. It might seem juvenile and reductionist to frame it in such simple terms. But I believe this is where we are truly at.
The bad will occur if the populist movement is centered on hate and ignorance (against Muslims and undocumented immigrants, e.g.) We see examples of this already. Groups of armed, white men with Confederate flags are gathering outside of the Michigan state capitol chanting “Lock her up” for simply enforcing some guidelines to keep the public safe. Not surprisingly, it has recently been discovered that these groups are funded by a political group that is indeed heavily funded by Betsy DeVos (Michgan Freedom Fund, Michigan Conservative Coalition). Trump is continuing the ignite that civil unrest by tweeting “Liberate [name of state]” for almost all of the states in the U.S. There are now protests in Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia, among others. His docile and vacuous sycophants are obsequiously parroting an even more docile and vacuous leader. Dumb idiots taking orders from a hateful, dumb, idiot leader. Sound familiar?
On the flip side, the good will happen if the movement is centered on compassion and love. A good populist movement will be non-violent and will focus on the issues. A true and honest movement will question the unequal institutions in our society and propose compassionate and rational solutions to our country’s problems and correctly identify the causes. We see examples of this as well. There was already a lot of tinder for this from the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. Now, the flames have been stoked when a progressive candidate like Sanders (who is really a moderate in most countries but considered a radical in our fucked up political landscape), the political manifestation of those two populist movements, has now been denied the nomination two election years in a row (for a variety of reasons). Progressive voices and ideas are continually maligned in cable news media and on Twitter. The entire agenda of the Sanders movement was ostracized by a fabricated “Bernie bro” myth.
At this point, we can go either way. And unfortunately, given our president’s actions and his power, I would place money on the “bad” at this point. But things these days can turn around quickly. There are also plenty of signs to place your money on the “good.”
I know. I’m like you. I don’t want to rock the boat. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Many of us want to live a simple life: go to a job that makes us moderately happy, or at least is only marginally depressing; forge meaningful relationships with friends, significant others, and family; treat others with the respect that they dish out; and contribute in some meaningful way to the environment around you.
The splinter in that cute, little proverbial puppy paw is that there is an elite cadre of people whose motives are much more sinister and domineering. I’m talking about the 1% of the country that owns as much wealth as the entire middle class. I’m talking about assholes like Richard Branson who owns his own island but claims he needs government money to keep his business afloat.
The more enduring problem: they have all the power. Richard Branson will most likely get what he wants.
The scales are tipped wildly in their favor. The fact of the matter is: if their power is left unfettered, they will kill us. They truly have no end to their greed. In the middle of a pandemic, the government (that they control) shelled out $1,200 bread crumbs to the people, while the largest corporations got a $500 billion dollar bailout. Even more menacing is that their addiction to fossil fuels will cook our Earth to a level on par with Venus.
Before we can enjoy our simple lives and create meaningful communities and lives with our loved ones, we must first rein in the oligarchic elite trying to take that simple future away from us. Their looting has gone largely unnoticed by the relatively opulent. But trust me, the population will continue to get squeezed for less and less and less.
I follow the lead of Chris Hedges on the solution. The elite cadre of individuals have stripped every mechanism of power from us: the media, the Congress, the judicial system, and the economy. The only way to retake power is through massive, non-violent, civil disobedience. We must obstruct, disrupt, and paralyze the gears of the system. As Mario Savio says: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. You have got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, and upon all the apparatus. And you’ve got to make it stop.”
That time is now. You can no longer passively take part. Which side are you on?
This is Part 3 in a three-part series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part and second part.
Amazon has continued to expand its influence on policy and on government over the past decade. We laud Jeff Bezos as the richest man in the world and how he rose to the top by his own bootstraps. Many imagine him as a self-starter, an entrepreneur, a visionary. But the fact remains that Jeff has used his vast wealth to influence policy and laws to favor his business practices. Amazon has pushed others aside in order to procure its vast influence on politics and legislation.
Granted, Amazon is not alone in this endeavor. It’s no secret that corporations endlessly lobby to get what they want – and are largely successful in buying their way to power. However, the amount that Amazon has spent purchasing political influence has recently skyrocketed. In fact, all members of Big Tech spent record amounts lobbying the U.S. government in 2018: to be precise, Google, Amazon and Facebook doled out a combined $48 million, an increase of 13 percent on the previous year. (Apple by contrast decreased its lobbying spending last year.)
Amazon has developed a business tactic wherein the company come up with a business idea, then goes to Congress to lobby for its approval. In 2006, Amazon lobbied the USDA for the first time, ahead of launching Amazon Fresh grocery delivery in 2007. In 2012, it lobbied the USPS for the first time, before announcing Sunday delivery in partnership with the USPS.
In 2013, it lobbied the FAA on drones in the same year that Jeff Bezos announced work on drone delivery. Additionally, Amazon worked with the Treasury Department after striking a deal with Texas asking the state to drop its demand for millions in back taxes. In 2016, the company lobbied the Department of Defense before its contracts with the government became more commonplace and lucrative.
AMAZON’S REVOLVING DOOR
Interestingly, Amazon has consistently and substantially given more money to Democrats than Republicans. In total, the company has donated almost $300,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, DNC Services Corp and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign. Amazon has also donated on average $75,000 to Democrats such as Beto O’Rourke, Kim Schrier, Maria Cantwell and Heidi Heitkamp. The top donor is the With Honor Fund, an organization that works to elect “the next generation veterans to Congress”.
Additionally, Open Secrets revealed that 83 of 115 Amazon.com lobbyists have previously held government jobs.
Amazon, like other Big Tech companies, reveres former government workers for their intricate understanding of the legislative process. Viveca Novak, a director at the Center for Responsive Politics, perhaps said it best: “People who have held key posts in the administration or in Congress are prized in the private sector because of their connections and their knowledge of how the process works, two things that are instrumental to getting anything done – or undone – in Washington. The private sector believes these former government workers are often worth the princely sums they are paid, given how much money can be at stake when business interests intersect with public policy.”
“To the degree that they are trying to influence government policy without registering as lobbyists – and they don’t have to as long as they are providing ‘strategic advice’, for instance, to a colleague who is doing the more direct lobbying – the public isn’t fully informed about who’s behind an effort,” Novak said.
INORDINATE INFLUENCE: CALL IT BRIBING POLITICIANS
So here’s the score: Amazon takes all of the money that it saves by not paying taxes, and the money that it receives in federal tax credits, and uses that cash to further manipulate and change policies that make room for its newest innovations. Instead of asking permission from government and the taxpayers, it bribes members of Congress and governmental institutions to sanction its latest projects and ideas.
It’s no secret that powerful companies like Amazon have gained – and maintained – their power because they use their wealth and status to inordinately influence the legislative and political process. To them, government is nothing more than a tool to get more of what they want. To that end, they hire lobbyists and use super PACS to alter laws so that they are unaffected by the standards applied to the middle class. They buy up media outlets to control the flow of information (Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post, for example) and hire previous government workers to maximize their political influence.
Imagine if the money spent on lobbying were instead donated or recycled back into the economy to support our most vulnerable citizens: the mentally ill, the elderly, the uninsured or underinsured, the hungry, the unemployed, or the terminally ill. Instead, already superbly wealthy companies use that wealth to accumulate more power – simply for the sake of acquiring more power and more wealth. The tax breaks that We the People provide these businesses, and the proverbial “green light” we give them on their new technological innovations, do nothing to improve the general public’s standard of living. They simply further consolidate unprecedented amounts of largesse and political power.
Many citizens still imagine that our government plays a role as the regulatory body over American companies and commerce. But in fact the reverse is turning out to be true: Corporations like Amazon are becoming supranational and the government is, in response, subservient to them.
Citizens must work together to reclaim the power that properly belongs to the people in order to reverse this disturbing trend.
This is Part II in a three-part series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part here.
If you ask Americans who controls the majority of the cloud storage market share, they’ll likely call out Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft. But in fact it is Amazon that reigns supreme in the cloud computing world.
As I discuss in my previous article for this series, Amazon actively sells surveillance technology to our government. Additionally, Amazon is unmatched in providing cloud storage to our government, gubernatorial organizations and local municipalities.
THE PATH TO POWER
Amazon has had a head start in the cloud market since its inception. To his credit, CEO Jeff Bezos realized about a decade ago that storing information on the Internet was cheaper and more efficient than storing information in traditional warehouses.
In 2006, Amazon formed its cloud computing branch of operations: Amazon Web Services, or AWS. After moving his information to cloud storage, Bezos began to expand and offer the space to other customers, namely, our government.
In 2010, the Obama administration started advocating for data storage in the cloud instead of brick-and-mortar data centers as a way to cut costs. Amazon was well-poised to provide the cloud space because of its substantial lead over competitors. Soon after the announcement, the company successfully snagged an opportunity to host Recovery.gov (www.recovery.gov), the agency website tasked with overseeing the use of stimulus money. Amazon’s business with the government, and its revenues, swelled.
“Since the announcement of Recovery.gov last March,” wrote Jeff Barr in a 2010 AWS News Blog, “Amazon has seen an accelerating adoption of the cloud by our Federal customers. These include Treasury.gov, the Federal Register 2.0 at the National Archives, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at USDA, the openEI.org project at DoE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA.”
In 2013, Amazon began to form cozy deals with the government to use its cloud services. For one, it designated a secret region of the cloud especially for the CIA, earning a particularly lucrative contract from the agency worth $600 million dollars. Amazon now serves all 17 agencies of the intelligence community and provides commercial cloud capability across all classification levels: from unclassified to sensitive, secret and top secret.
A LINE BETWEEN COMPANY AND GOVERNMENT?
The company’s expansion into our government continues to this day. Now Amazon claims that over 2,000 government agencies are using AWS. Federal agencies such as the Department for Veterans Affairs, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, NASA JPL and the U.S. Department of Defense are all clients. So are state and local institutions like the City of Chicago, the New York Public Library and the City of Los Angeles, all of whom depend on AWS for cloud computing services.
Securing its regional and local dominance, in January 2017 the company won a contract with U.S. Communities – a coalition of 90,000 local governments.
Continuing this trend, the online behemoth is currently in line to sign a staggering $10 billion contract with the Defense Department, known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI). All bids were due in October 2018 and a decision is expected to be made this April. Other companies, from IBM to Oracle, have filed protests stating that the solicitation has been uncompetitive. The Government Accountability Office has since ruled against Oracle, allowing the process to move forward.
Amazon is also poised to serve as a portal for government purchases. Last year, a provision in a law passed by Congress required the General Services Administration (GSA) to set up “commercial e-commerce portals” for government purchase orders costing less than $25,000. This law became known as the “Amazon amendment” among critics.
Amazon didn’t earn this deal based on merit or business acumen. Instead, it used its political influence to change the outcome. As The Guardian revealed, in 2017, the head of Amazon Business’s public sector division, Anne Rung, privately advised on the GSA internet portal before the legislation was finalized and the company was chosen. Coincidentally, Rung was a former official in the Obama administration and she even ran the Office of Management and Budget’s Federal Procurement Policy office before joining Amazon.
Technically, there is nothing illegal about all this (there isn’t a law, yet, banning Washington’s revolving door). But the fact is Amazon is receiving advantages that other stakeholders, such as public interest groups, are not receiving.
Not only that, Amazon won another contract to become the chief supplier of goods like stationery and books to thousands of local governments and municipalities – a contract worth up to $5.5 billion.
It’s safe to say the government has become Amazon’s best customer, providing a steady stream of commerce that has been most lucrative for the company.
LACKING TRANSPARENCY, WHERE WE GO FROM HERE
Last year, AWS generated $1.4 billion in operating income for Amazon in Q1 alone. Later that year the figure increased by 46 percent to $6.7 billion.
Amazon’s lack of transparency about the expansion of its cloud storage is disappointing – but not surprising. Despite all the information we have on AWS and its quid pro quo relationship with our government, we still don’t know the sheer magnitude of its size and scope.
This because most of the information remains classified – including its CIA contract – due to Amazon’s refusal to reveal intricate details of its contracts and deals. Amazon often declines to comment about how much of its business is connected to the federal government. It’s only through FOIA requests that we are able to glean the partial information that is available.
Are we comfortable, as citizens, entrusting an untrustworthy, mega of mega-companies with the responsibility of storing information for our local and federal government? We were never given a choice in the matter, much less a say. Even more concerning, Amazon’s invasive surveillance technology, like Rekognition and Alexa, sends information to similar clouds to be processed and matched to a database.
The fact that Amazon has become the de facto government provider for both surveillance technology and cloud storage is a troubling development that signals a disturbing relationship between business and the officials who run our state. It was Benito Mussolini’s ghostwriter, Giovanni Gentile, who stated that “fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”
One need look no further than the future location of Amazon’s HQ2 – in Arlington County, Virginia, one mile south of the Pentagon to observe this encroaching merger. The symbolism of the symbiosis between state and corporate power couldn’t be clearer.
Our government, and the officials we elect, are addicted to the line of supporting free-market economics at all costs. But in reality, that government consistently prefers to cut deals with corporations that operate surreptitiously and clandestinely. We, as citizens, must remain vigilant or we may soon be faced with a monster too big to take down.
When most people hear Amazon, they think of an online store that features easy, one-click retail sales, convenient two-day shipping and millions of downloadable e-books. They picture a cute smiley logo.
However, this is only the small, visible part of Amazon’s iceberg of revenue and influence. In the underbelly beneath the surface lies the company’s true operation: cloud data storage and the development of advanced surveillance tools for governments.
Amazon is actively working to sell a new type of facial recognition technology, known as Rekognition, to various branches of government and municipalities.
Rekognition has plenty of abilities and uses that are admittedly innocuous: the creation of searchable video and image libraries; user verification; detection of explicit content in images and videos; extraction of text from images, videos and banners; and identification of vehicles based on license plate numbers. It also recognizes popular celebrities.
Other uses are more disconcerting. Rekognition claims that it can detect emotions such as happy, sad or surprise. It also asserts that it can determine demographic information of a person, such as gender, from facial images alone. The software can analyze these images and send the emotional and demographic information to a section of Amazon Web Services, or AWS – its Internet hosting service.
Rekognition is also capable of recognizing faces in a crowd, and compares and stores them in a database container called “a face collection.”
“With Amazon Rekognition,” the website continues, “you can search images, stored videos, and streaming videos for faces that match those stored in a container known as a face collection. A face collection is an index of faces that you own and manage.”
The potential abuse of this software for surveillance and data harvesting purposes is so troubling that some of Amazon’s shareholders have pleaded with the company to forgo selling the facial recognition technology to the government.
Their letter of protest, however, was submitted too late. To date, Rekognition has already been sold to two local law enforcement agencies: the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, in Oregon, and the Orlando Police Department in Florida.
The technology is now in its second pilot in Orlando after its first attempt was canceled following resounding citizen opposition. According to documents obtained by Buzzfeed through a FOIA request, Amazon provided “tens of thousands of dollars of technology to [Orlando] at no cost,” and shielded the city with a “mutual nondisclosure agreement that kept details out of the public eye.”
Buzzfeed also learned that Amazon provided no hands-on training to the officers. Amazon declined to answer on-record if the system learns from the videos it takes in, if they provided hands-on training to officers, or how the system disregards faces that are not “persons of interest.”
Washington County, which has used Rekognition for about a year and a half, claims the technology is helpful in finding “persons of interest” through existing mugshots, and helping investigate Amber alerts. According to the sheriff’s office, state law doesn’t permit the use of technology for mass or real-time surveillance.
However, the term “persons of interest,” used by both departments, is conveniently vague and nebulous enough that it may apply to just about anyone – even those without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The stakes are incredibly high when officers entrust a nascent piece of technology to inform them to make instant, life-or-death decisions.
Additionally, Amazon is pitching its Rekognition software to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Although it seems this could streamline the government’s maintenance of records, there is also potential for significant errors and discrimination.
ICE already uses biometrics (fingerprints) in its documentation and cataloguing of undocumented immigrants. But the use of fingerprints has come under intense scrutiny for targeting undocumented immigrants for deportation. The misuse and lack of oversight has motivated a group of lawyers to sue ICE and submit FOIA requests to explain its oversight procedure. Facial recognition technology will likely continue this worrisome trend.
But Rekognition may not even help the police and ICE for the simple reason that it is inconsistent and inaccurate.
The ACLU ran a test in which it built a face database and search tool using 25,000 publicly available arrest photos. Then, the organization searched that database against public photos of every current member of the House and Senate. In its test, the ACLU found that Amazon’s Rekognition software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of others who have been arrested for a crime.
About 40 percent of Rekognition’s false matches in this test were people of color. Of these members, six of the incorrect matches were individuals from the Congressional Black Caucus, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis – a celebrity the technology arguably should recognize.
Given the Trump administration’s dismal performance – failure in enforcing border security, managing undocumented immigrants’ families, and restraining ICE’s terrorization of communities of color – paired with the software’s proven potential for racial bias, the adoption of this technology is particularly concerning and should be grounds for rejection of its use outright.
Furthermore, the government is now testing the technology for use within the FBI, which would allow federal agents to sift through videos and images more quickly than ever before. It will also allow the FBI to build a system to automate the identification and tracking of any citizen. If the FBI adopts the nebulous term “persons of interest,” as our municipal police precincts have done, the nation’s most powerful and pervasive law enforcement body would have free rein to target whomever it likes.
But Amazon’s surveillance rampage doesn’t stop there. Rekognition is coming to homes as well.
Amazon has submitted a patent to pair Rekognition and databases with a doorbell company called Ring, which, incidentally, Amazon bought earlier in 2018. With Ring and Rekognition combined, police can match the faces of people walking by the camera with a photo database of people that they deem “suspicious.” Homeowners can add photos of “suspicious” people and if a match occurs, the person’s face can be sent automatically to law enforcement.
Again, without legislative or judicial oversight, and without precedent, terms “suspicious” and “persons of interest” can quickly swell to include a large number of people who are not criminals.
The fact that Amazon is providing the surveillance software to catalog, document and match personal information, along with the cloud storage to store it all, is emblematic of an unsettling initiative where big business and big government work together to enact a pervasive surveillance state.
At the very least, Amazon’s spokespeople, federal government officials and local municipalities must be held accountable to provide fixed and honest answers about the real intentions of these devices. More importantly, they need to tell us how the government would specifically utilize these tools.
At the same time, citizens must ask how tools like Rekognition will benefit them – and demand assurances that they aren’t simply being used to consolidate government and corporate power over our lives. Given the current political climate, and in respect of the Fourth Amendment, this technology shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near our federal government in the first place.