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This is being posted on a very special day. So in honor of Prime Day, here is an overview of Amazon’s biggest merger: not a merger with another corporation, but the police state.
On September 9th, Keith Alexander, the former director of the National Security Agency, was named to Amazon’s board of directors.
This is outrageous on the face of it:
It was under Keith Alexander’s directorship that the NSA started its PRISM program. That’s the program that collected internet communications en-masse from top tech companies. It’s one of Edward Snowden’s main exposés.
So the guy who oversaw a key mass surveillance program ends up working for Amazon. The company that is building a sprawling, privately-owned surveillance regime, and a company which also powers a huge portion of the internet.
Those who care about privacy and civil liberties were quick to be outraged. Edward Snowden, for example, tweeted:
This is one extraordinarily offensive example of the ever-evolving corporate government, and of an increasingly ominous surveillance state.
For all of Amazon’s acquisitions in recent years, its the behemoth’s ever-important role to government affairs that marks perhaps its most significant merger.
To explain why:
First, I’m going to outline the basic context that Keith Alexander’s hire takes place in. Following that, an outline of Amazon’s surveillance empire, and control over the internet, to make clear how ominous this moment is.
The JEDI Contract
The JEDI contract may be the immediate reason for Keith Alexander’s hire.
The JEDI contract is a $10 billion cloud computing contract. The winner of the contract was to service the Pentagon’s entire digital infrastructure.
At the time, it seemed absolutely slated for Amazon. Many of the stipulations in the proposed contract were ones that vanishingly few companies—even big ones—could meet. For example, a requirement that bidders had to net more than $2 billion in cloud revenue a year. A key lobbyist present at the calls for the contract and its formation is an Amazon lobbyist.
Keep in mind that Amazon already had struck a major $600 million cloud infrastructure deal with the CIA in 2013. So it was well-positioned for further federal defense contracting.
Of course, things didn’t go as planned, with the contract being awarded to Microsoft instead. Amazon got mad and blamed Trump for interfering at the last minute out of spite for Jeff Bezos.
Fair enough. It’s interesting enough to see an enormous company sue the Pentagon, and demand a sitting president give a deposition so that said company can win a federal contract, but let’s leave that aside.
Amazon has contested the result back and forth and in early September of this year, the DoD reaffirmed Microsoft was indeed the lawful winner of the contract. Perhaps that ought to have been the final roadblock, but Amazon is hellbent on winning that contract, so it’s still in limbo.
One of the main values Keith Alexander would bring is a set of inroads with federal agencies, or to be glib (and unironic), the “deep state.” Knowledge and connections that would allow Amazon to, if not recover the JEDI contract at the final hour, at least be able to snag related federal contracts in the future.
And that CIA contract from 2013? The CIA recently opened up new cloud contracts for competition. With Microsoft, IBM, Google, and Oracle all gaining ground in the federal contracting sphere, bringing in the former head of an intelligence agency to your board seems like a good move.
That’s the least cynical, and most verifiable, reading of Keith Alexander’s new gig.
But when it comes to the most powerful institutions and people in the world, there ought to be no shortage of paranoia. To that end, here’s a reminder of the level of power Amazon has:
Amazon controls the internet
Amazon Web Services is famous for quietly dominating the modern internet.
For a rough idea: 2019 reporting estimates AWS held 47.8% of the public cloud computing infrastructure market. Its nearest competitor is Microsoft, which has “just” 15.5% of the market.
But what does that really mean, in terms ordinary denizens of the internet understand?
You may know that Netflix uses AWS. It’s a fact that’s become well known because of the antitrust concerns, since Netflix is a competitor to Amazon Prime’s video streaming.
Other big spenders of AWS include: Apple, which, in 2019, was spending $30 million a month; Lyft, which agreed to spend at least $300 million from 2019 to 2021; Pinterest, which agreed to spend $750 million over 6 years; and Snapchat, which agreed to spend over a billion ’til the end of 2022.
Feels like just about every big brand uses AWS to some degree. Here’s a list straight from Amazon Web Services’ “case studies” page of companies you use every day, like:
- Your phone carriers (Verizon, T-Mobile, Vodafone)
- Your game publishers (Riot Games, Activision, Ubisoft)
- The outlets you read (Time Inc., which owns Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune, People, and Entertainment Weekly; Newsweek and Daily Beast)
- The services you use for entertainment (Netflix, Comcast’s streaming service, Twitch, SoundCloud)
- The services you use for travel (Lyft, Expedia, easyJet, United Airlines, Air Asia, Korean Air, Hyatt Hotels, AirBNB)
- The chains and sites you use to get food (Domino’s, Chick-fil-A, McDonald’s, Yelp)
- The software you use for school or work (Adobe, Academia.edu, Intuit, Coursera)
- As well as the schools themselves (University of Notre Dame, Cornell, Emory)
- And even the services you use to build and host your own websites and domain names (GoDaddy, Webflow, SmugMug)
Now, granted, these companies use AWS to different extents. Some, like Domino’s and Netflix, rely heavily on AWS. Others (like United Airlines) just use AWS for parts of their business.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that a huge number of the companies you use every day use Amazon to provide their services to you. The list I gave is, frankly, short.
And they’ll only control more and more. At the end of July, the FCC authorized Amazon to deploy over 3,200 satellites in low-earth orbit, satellites that would beam high-speed internet back to us.
Maybe that’s not a huge deal to everyone. SpaceX is doing the same with Starlink, and the FCC has already given permission for SpaceX to deploy tens of thousands of satellites. It’d probably be an overall improvement in global internet access. But one wonders what the hidden costs are.
The Surveillance Empire
A full list of Amazon’s efforts to spy on people would be immense to the point of uselessness. You can Google around to learn more.
In fact, it’d be effective to just look at a list of Amazon’s product announcements. Smart doorbells and speakers are old news. Now it’s about smart dog collars, microwaves, ovens…you get the idea.
But just for a sense of the point, here’s a brief look at Amazon’s two-pronged (or three-pronged) surveillance regime, including 1) the surveillance of neighborhoods in collaboration with police and 2) it’s consumer-side surveillance (on workers and customers).
Amazon’s partnerships with police
Amazon pushes contracts and collaboration with police wherever it can. In early 2018, Lancashire County became the first locality in the UK to have police partner with Amazon, specifically with its Echo smart speaker.
Police would be able to broadcast crime updates, photos of wanted and missing people, safety notifications, to Echo owners within their jurisdiction. And citizens’ crime reports would be stored on Amazon’s servers, rather than Lancashire’s.
If the UK sounds too distant, consider this:
In March 2016, the CEO of Ring—which is the smart home security company that Amazon bought—emailed everyone in the company. The subject line read “going to war.” Everyone was going to get camouflage-print t-shirts.
That wasn’t solely rhetoric. In 2019, The Intercept reported on Ring documents that appeared to show efforts to create neighborhood watch lists, based on facial recognition, of passers-by that seem suspicious. The company denied any such work was in progress.
By now, police collaboration with Ring and smart home security systems is in full swing. Police don’t need a warrant to get Ring video footage. They just need the owner of the property to give permission—anyone who’s caught on video has zero say in the matter.
It’s not just giving local police Big Brother surveillance powers. Ring’s secretive contracts with local police even police language (get it?). Some contracts allow Ring to review PD’s press releases before they’re put up, and the company has apparently restricted use of the word “surveillance” in some cases.
Vice broke news of one secretive contract with police in Lakeland, Florida: in order to partner with Ring, departments had to assign officers roles specific to the company. Roles like, “community relations coordinator,” and “social media manager.”
Or in other words, Amazon’s Ring wanted officers to advertise and do PR for it. It gets better! Ring literally gave away 15 doorbell surveillance cameras to the department and created a program, to be administered by police, encouraging people to download Ring’s neighborhood watch app. Each download of the app would provide a discount to a Ring doorbell camera.
You may wonder how widespread this is. It’s a fair question—it could be one-off cases that seem especially egregious, but not common.
We just don’t know, and we probably won’t for a while. But in late 2019, Ring alone had partnered with over 400 police departments in the U.S.
Hell, just recently–in early September–news broke that Amazon spent $24,000 trying to defeat Portland’s city ordinance barring facial recognition in public spaces.
That may be a paltry sum compared to the $1 million Amazon spent in Seattle’s late 2019 city council elections, but if anything, it shows how cavalier such attempts to intervene in local politics are. Amazon is, of course, headquartered in Seattle, and invested more in trying to avoid harsher taxes. Portland, home to police and businesses seeking surveillance powers, is just another client of facial recognition tech, along with most other major U.S. cities.
So what will happen if your city tries to restrict facial recognition? You’ll just have to hope Amazon’s subsidiaries don’t have much business in your town.
And this will only get worse: introducing, “Sidewalk.”
On September 25th, Amazon fully unveiled Sidewalk. Amazon Sidewalk is the company’s attempt to move beyond homes to neighborhoods.
Sidewalk takes a small portion of your home’s WiFi bandwidth and transmits it via Bluetooth and radio signals to compatible devices farther away. Ideally (for Amazon), this forms a network with other smart Amazon devices in an area, whose owners are also contributing to the network with portions of their bandwidth. It’s a new network for communities–wholly owned by Amazon.
Take this excerpt from Amazon’s blog post for a vision of the near future:
The immediate benefit of a 900 MHz-based network is the ability to use your favorite connected devices even if they’re located far away from the router inside your home.
In the near future, we also see the potential to help customers get more from 900 MHz connections in their neighborhoods, creating a broad network among neighbors that can be used to extend connectivity all the way to your mailbox out at the street where a smart sensor lets you know exactly when your mail has been delivered, or to a water sensor that lets you know it’s time to water the garden in the backyard.“Introducing Amazon Sidewalk,” by Amazon’s Blog
Sidewalk is not, of course, a device you buy. It’s a network. Owners of Amazon’s smart devices won’t need to buy anything to help relay signals to the Sidewalk network. They just need to install software updates. That’s it.
And it seems safe to assume that incoming smart devices, being up to date, will include Sidewalk compatibility.
Maybe Amazon will be caught siphoning bandwidth from Alexa owners even when they opt out of Sidewalk; maybe Amazon will eventually make Sidewalk compatibility mandatory on older devices. Or maybe (probably), people who already own Amazon’s smart devices will opt in to Sidewalk gladly, and that’s just the future we have to deal with.
As for how police will use Sidewalk? Use your imagination. It won’t be a stretch.
Amazon is watching its customers and its workers
And none of this has even touched on the other ways in which Amazon wants to enter its customers’ property physically.
The growing list of Amazon smart products, sure, that’s a big one. But even aside from that, there’s a constant effort to cross traditionally private boundaries. Consider, for example, Amazon’s push for in-garage and in-car deliveries, in which a delivery person can unlock your car to get a package to you:
Now, does letting an Amazon driver into your car mean they’re placing a tiny microphone or camera? Pretty unlikely. But the precedent of one of the world’s largest companies have eternal access to your life digitally and physically—that can’t be good outcome.
This is Amazon’s war to change culture: the fight to make itself welcome in every aspect of your life, with no door left unopened. It can’t be worth the marginally better delivery experiences we may get.
As for how Amazon monitors its own workers—that’s a topic that warrants its own essay. I’ll spare you that for now. Briefly:
Amazon submitted a patent in 2018 for a wristband seemingly intended for warehouse workers: it would track workers’ movements and vibrate in a certain direction to speed them up in the warehouse.
Amazon’s defense of this was that they were simply moving inventory-tracking equipment from workers’ hands to their wrists. As Richard Salame points out in Jacobin, that’s not really a lie: warehouse workers were already directed to move around inventory by handheld scanners that treated them like robots. Everything in an Amazon warehouse or fulfillment center is tightly regulated and calculated, with workers on a constant timer and a mix of management and AI monitoring everything.
And when it comes to the threat of workers unionizing, Amazon is always quick on the uptake.
Just recently, in early September, a Vice investigation revealed that Amazon used a secret program to monitor its (independently contracted) Flex drivers’ Facebook pages, particularly for unionization talk.
In April 2020, Business Insider reported that Amazon subsidiary Whole Foods had a heat map for its locations across the United States, which used over 20 metrics to determine which ones were most at risk of unionizing.
This has been a bit lengthy, but the ultimate summary is quite simple.
Amazon is building a private surveillance apparatus of its own by putting glorified microphones in as many homes as possible, partnering with police, and doing all it can to monitor its workers. And in the process, it’s worked hard to reduce cultural boundaries.
Amazon already powers a significant portion of the internet. It powers an enormous portion of online commerce. It powers government departments and agencies. It seeks to expand its reach within all those domains, and is succeeding as far as anyone can tell.
And it just hired the former director of the NSA.
Keith Alexander couldn’t join Amazon’s board at a better time. He oversaw the mass surveillance of a nation by secret government authority, and now will oversee the mass surveillance of a nation by in-your-face private authority. It’s harder to find a better symbol of the last few years, or what we can expect in the next few.
What does this mean?
Nothing you haven’t figured out by now, but let me put it clearly: it means Amazon’s truest corporate merger is with the United States government, and cyberpunk dystopia is thus well underway.