By Ty Joplin
Amazon’s decision to move a new headquarters to Washington D.C. is fitting for a company that has enmeshed itself into the interior workings of the U.S. government.
With the move, Amazon has further cemented itself as the front runner for a $10 billion dollar contract to build host the Department of Defense’s data and intelligence on a cloud. In late 2017, Amazon squeezed its way to becoming the government’s main portal for procurement and acquisitions, which total $53 billion a year.
Lucrative as they may be, Amazon’s dealings with the U.S. government is changing the company from a mere tech giant into a defense contractor with immense formative power. By designing, hosting and framing the Pentagon’s records, Amazon is shaping how the state organizes itself.
By working more closely with the Pentagon, Amazon, like other tech companies, are becoming executors and wielders of state power.
Their CEOs unelectable, their contracts not open for discussion by taxpayers, they are taking vital state functions further out of the hands, ears and eyes of citizens, obscuring them from public view and blurring lines of accountability in the process.
Amazon, the Defense Contractor
Experts pointed out that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ decision to move a headquarters into Washington D.C. relates to a $10 billion contract for which the tech company is vying. Called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI), the Pentagon is looking for tech companies to design and implement a new cloud to host all of its classified and unclassified data.
Amazon looks all but assured to win that contract, and will thus be given the responsibility of designing that cloud, with the goal of helping to streamline and centralize the Pentagon’s record keeping and data collection.
Taken on its own, JEDI appears benign and situated more in the peripheral, bureaucratic end of state power, but it is part of a wider trend of tech companies enhancing governments’ data collection. In more extreme examples that can be found in China, Venezuela and Zimbabwe, governments are contracting tech companies to outright design draconian surveillance methods to control their citizens.
Amazon’s integration into the U.S. is less dangerous but begs the same questions of accountability and transparency: namely, how much leverage and power do these companies have in shaping policy? Are there any direct ways taxpayers can demand accountability for a private company?
Joining a Tech Chorus
China’s Xi Jinping with Venezuela’s Roberto Maduro (Venezuelan presidency)
In China’s Xinjiang province, Huawei is coordinating with other tech companies to enhance the government’s ability to manage people in a grid-like system. Veiled under the language of ‘smart city’ governance, Huawei is contributing to a massive surveillance state that monitors millions of ethnically Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims, whose every move, purchase and conversation is painstakingly tracked and put into a central system and given a score that determines how trustworthy each person is.
Already, more than a million Muslims have been sent to concentration camps, thanks in part to Huawei. The Chinese tech company recently announced it was expanding its city management systems to Duisburg, Germany.
Another company, Cloudwalk, is responsible for helping to perfect the facial recognition technology in Xinjiang. They are now working with Zimbabwe’s government to give that recognition software to a state that has a troubling history of rights abuses.
On Nov 14, Reuters broke that another China tech firm, ZTE, has been working with Venezuela’s government to build a sprawling surveillance network over the whole country.
ZTE’s work centers around a ‘fatherland card,’ a kind of national card Venezuelans use for voting, that will become a credit card as well. It will then monitor purchases and score Venezuelans in a social credit system similar to the one used in China. The system will reportedly be tied to vital food, health and other welfare programs Venezuelans need to live. Human rights activists and government watchdogs warn the system will be used to crack down on dissidents, cutting them off from welfare while allocating greater resources to loyalists of the state.
These examples have a common theme: that of tech companies engineering new methods to collect data, which is then used against citizens in a surveillance state.
Blurring Lines of Accountability
A private company enhancing the state’s power brings a host of questions regarding accountability and transparency.
If citizens find that the state’s actions are becoming abusive, do they boycott the private company, such as Amazon, or refuse to pay taxes they suspect will go to subsidies and handouts to the company?
Do they elect politicians who vow not to further privatize the state’s functions? How will these new politicians succeed in Washington D.C., a capitol flush with private cash aimed at getting a piece of the state power pie?
Do citizens petition Amazon’s executives through sit-ins? These strategies all appear tangential, cutting at the corners of the relationship between the tech company and the state. The central bond remains the contract and the influence the tech company wields with officials and institutions within the state and vice versa; there is little room for citizens to inquire about how that relationship may affect them.
Therein lines the danger of Amazon’s growing influence and future as a defense contractor. As its power grows and becomes more intertwined with state functions, when will citizens’ actions stop being meaningful to check it?
Will it be when Bezos is a de facto cabinet member with the president? Will it be when he wields as much power as an appointed or elected official, but is entirely unelectable or unappointable?
A CEO wielding the power of a government official without any of the accountability is a profound problem for democracy.
Bezos is doing everything he can to have that power.
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