First it sold books. Then it added gadgetry, groceries and chipper virtual assistants. But Amazon’s latest expansion will take many shoppers by surprise.
Meet Amazon, aspiring military behemoth.
In the none-to-distant future, US soldiers may rely on Amazon-run systems to trade intelligence, relay orders and call for help. Drone footage might be scoured for wanted men and women by Amazon software. Defense department quartermasters would use Amazon technology to move ammunition and supplies.
For Jeff Bezos, it’s not a question of whether customers will mind his company’s defense ambitions, or of complaints raised by civil liberties advocates. As Amazon’s face and founder casts it, the issue is one of patriotism.
“This is a great country and it does need to be defended,” Bezos said during an October WIRED magazine summit. “If big tech companies are going to turn their back on US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble.”
Now Amazon is the leading contender for a 10-year, $10bn project to accelerate the Pentagon’s move into cloud computing. The Pentagon has said the goal of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure – widely known by its Star Wars-styled acronym, Jedi – is to increase American “lethality” by replacing its antiquated, segmented IT systems.
Amazon is widely regarded as the strongest contender for the Jedi contract, which is expected to be inked in early 2019, in part because its division Amazon Web Services already dominates American cloud computing. One 2017 estimate found AWS held more than half the worldwide cloud computing market. AWS hosts top secret data for the CIA, supports federal agencies from the justice department to Nasa, powers the national immigration case management system and stores hundreds of millions of identity documents.
Jedi is expected to inject modern technology into a creaky system. An audit in November found that “systemic flaws” in defense department networks invite hacking, and that the department’s finance systems were so disorganized they could not be audited. Jedi is a first step toward a system that will handle tasks as diverse as frontline communications, medical records management and scheduling.
The finished system will move petabytes of data between every continent except Antarctica. Service members at the “tactical edge” will be equipped with rugged devices enabling them to check into the cloud. Modular data centers will be deployed to forward bases. The Pentagon hopes those can operate in space.
If Amazon wins the Jedi contract and another contract to open a government e-commerce portal, the company will “vault from being a bit player to becoming one of the 10 most-dominant federal contractors, with potential to become one of the largest in relatively short order”, said Steven Schooner, a professor of government procurement law at George Washington University.
Amazon makes no apologies for moving aggressively into the public sector in this way.
“We feel strongly that the defense, intelligence and national security communities deserve access to the best technology in the world and we are committed to supporting their critical missions of protecting our citizens and defending our country,” a spokesperson for the Seattle-based company said, responding to a request for comment from the Guardian.
The proposition that Amazon should defend America can be seen as a logical extension of a mission Bezos laid down in his 1997 letter to shareholders. Amazon targets dysfunctional systems that aren’t serving customers well – from book distribution to home delivery to computer networking – and leads their reinvention.
“We will continue to focus relentlessly on our customers,” Bezos wrote. “We will make bold rather than timid investment decisions where we see a sufficient probability of gaining market leadership advantages.”
Bezos is not the first in his family in the defense sector. His formative influences included his grandfather Lawrence Preston Gise, who is usually described in press accounts as Bezos would’ve known him – a semi-retired rancher showing his grandson how to castrate bulls. Yet Gise also made his living as a defense researcher and manager during the early days of the cold war and ultimately ran the New Mexico office of the Atomic Energy Commission, which was in charge of America’s civilian and military nuclear programs until the 1970s.
Big tech and the defense industry have been intertwined since the second world war, when military funding financed the development of the first all-digital computers, said Margaret O’Mara, a University of Washington history professor. That connection deepened as defense money flowed to researchers developing software languages, networks, machine learning and artificial intelligence.
“You name it, there’s some defense DNA in there somewhere,” O’Mara said.
AWS made a splash in national security circles in 2013 when it launched a $600m cloud network for the CIA and other American intelligence agencies.
John Wood, the CEO of Telos, a Virginia-based cybersecurity firm, likened the contract to the “shot heard ‘round the world”.
“The CIA, arguably the most security conscious organisation in the world, decided that they were going to move to the cloud,” Wood said. “That really made the rest of the world stand up and take notice, and ask the question, ‘If it’s good enough for them, why isn’t it good enough for us?’”
Dozens of agencies – from the FBI to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – are now AWS users.
Critics worry both that a “cloud-industrial complex” is forming as large tech companies wade into national security and that rapidly developing technologies will be misused by the military or police. AI-assisted facial recognition software has been an early flashpoint.
Amazon’s move to sell its facial recognition software, Rekognition, to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Ice) prompted protest from the American Civil Liberties Union, a small group of shareholders and a hundred-or-so employees. Bezos was not deterred. AWS sales teams have also pitched Rekognition at defense industry events.
Amazon declined to say which agencies, if any, are using Rekognition. What is clear to observers, though, is AWS’s desire to make money off defense and law enforcement customers.
“They’ve been consistent in selling these technologies at trade shows,” said Shankar Narayan of the Washington state affiliate of the ACLU, which in January demanded Amazon, Google and Microsoft to stop selling artificial intelligence-assisted facial recognition to the US government. “They demo’d it to Ice. The FBI is testing it.”
Amazon asserts Rekognition can spot Kalashnikovs and faces from a user-selected watchlist in near real-time. Image recognition software greatly speeds the review of surveillance footage. Speaking at an Amazon-organized conference in 2018, Christine Halvorsen, the FBI deputy assistant director for counterterrorism, said analysts combing video of the 2017 Las Vegas massacre could have completed their work in a day if they had access to Rekognition. Instead it took weeks to track the gunman’s movements.
Microsoft and Google have, to varying degrees, recognized civil liberties and human rights concerns raised by the new technology. Amazon has largely declined to address the moral dimensions of national security work.
“Amazon really has distinguished themselves as being an actor that doesn’t acknowledge any responsibility and really has doubled down on selling these technologies to the government, the military as well as law enforcement,” said Narayan.
The company “has largely hewed to the position that their founder has articulated, that society supposedly has this ‘immune response’ to new technologies like these and things will get sorted out on their own”, Narayan said. “That’s an attitude that rests on a great deal of privilege and doesn’t really account for the human lives that are being impacted by this technology in real time.”
Amazon declined to respond to the ACLU comments.
Amazon is widely regarded as the strongest contender for the Jedi contract. Competition for Jedi has been bitter. Amazon’s rivals – Oracle, IBM and Microsoft – have protested, unsuccessfully thus far, that contract requirements they claim unfairly favor Amazon.
Oracle, a California tech giant, sued the federal government in December. Attorneys for Oracle suggested defense department employees with connections to AWS biased the contract in Amazon’s favor. Notably, the AWS General Manager, Deap Ubhi, spent a year as a product director for the Defense Digital Service, the Pentagon’s tech division. The Pentagon is currently reviewing Ubhi’s work developing the Jedi contract.
The impact of the Jedi contract will reverberate. Neil Gordon of the Project On Government Oversight, a watchdog group examining federal contracting, said the Jedi contract may give the winner a lasting advantage in US government cloud computing – “a monopoly over this area for years to come”.