By Michael Krieger
Source: Liberty Blitzkrieg
A second former Amazon employee would spark more controversy. Deap Ubhi, a former AWS employee who worked for Lynch, was tasked with gathering marketing information to make the case for a single cloud inside the DOD. Around the same time that he started working on JEDI, Ubhi began talking with AWS about rejoining the company. As his work on JEDI deepened, so did his job negotiations. Six days after he received a formal offer from Amazon, Ubhi recused himself from JEDI, fabricating a story that Amazon had expressed an interest in buying a startup company he owned. A contracting officer who investigated found enough evidence that Ubhi’s conduct violated conflict of interest rules to refer the matter to the inspector general, but concluded that his conduct did not corrupt the process. (Ubhi, who now works in AWS’ commercial division, declined comment through a company spokesperson.)
Ubhi worsened the impression by making ill-advised public statements while still employed by the DOD. In a tweet, he described himself as “once an Amazonian, always an Amazonian.”
– From the must read ProPublica expose: How Amazon and Silicon Valley Seduced the Pentagon
That U.S. tech giants are willing participants in facilitating mass government surveillance has been widely known for a while, particularly since whistleblower Edward Snowden risked his life and liberty to tell us about it six years ago. We also know what happens to executives who don’t play ball.
Perhaps the most high profile example relates to Joseph Nacchio, CEO of telecom company Qwest in the aftermath of 9/11. Courageously, he was the only executive who pushed back against government attempts to violate the civil liberties of his customers. A few years later, he was thrown in jail for insider trading and stayed locked up for four years. He claimed his incarceration was retaliation for not bending the knee to government, which seems likely.
Charges his defense team claimed were U.S. government retaliation for his refusal to give customer data to the National Security Agency in February, 2001. This defense was not admissible in court because the U.S. Department of Justice filed an in limine motion, which is often used in national security cases, to exclude information which may reveal state secrets. Information from the Classified Information Procedures Act hearings in Nacchio’s case was likewise ruled inadmissible
Fast forward to today, and the tech giants have willingly and enthusiastically transformed themselves into compliant organs of the national security state. Big tech executives have by and large embraced this extremely lucrative and powerful role rather than push back against it. There’s simply too much money at stake, and nobody wants to go to the big house like Joe Nacchio. There is no resistance.
Just yesterday, we learned that Twitter’s executive for the Middle East is an actual British Army ‘psyops’ soldier. Unfortunately, this is not a joke.
As reported by Middle East Eye:
The senior Twitter executive with editorial responsibility for the Middle East is also a part-time officer in the British Army’s psychological warfare unit, Middle East Eye has established.
Gordon MacMillan, who joined the social media company’s UK office six years ago, has for several years also served with the 77th Brigade, a unit formed in 2015 in order to develop “non-lethal” ways of waging war.
The 77th Brigade uses social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, as well as podcasts, data analysis and audience research to wage what the head of the UK military, General Nick Carter, describes as “information warfare”.
Here’s how Twitter responded to the revelation…
Twitter would say only that “we actively encourage all our employees to pursue external interests.”
They don’t even care.
While that’s troubling enough, I want to focus your attention on a brilliant and extremely important piece published a couple of months ago at ProPublica, which many of you may have missed. It details the troubling and incestuous relationship between Amazon and Google executives with the Department of Defense. A relationship which virtually guarantees these CEOs immunity as long as they play ball. It’s impossible to read this piece and come away thinking these are “just private companies.” They demonstrably are not.
In the case of Amazon, a Pentagon whistleblower named Roma Laster grew uncomfortable with the cozy relationship Jeff Bezos had with DOD leaders.
On Aug. 8, 2017, Roma Laster, a Pentagon employee responsible for policing conflicts of interest, emailed an urgent warning to the chief of staff of then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Several department employees had arranged for Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, to be sworn into an influential Pentagon advisory board despite the fact that, in the year since he’d been nominated, Bezos had never completed a required background check to obtain a security clearance.
Mattis was about to fly to the West Coast, where he would personally swear Bezos in at Amazon’s headquarters before moving on to meetings with executives from Google and Apple. Soon phone calls and emails began bouncing around the Pentagon. Security clearances are no trivial matter to defense officials; they exist to ensure that people with access to sensitive information aren’t, say, vulnerable to blackmail and don’t have conflicts of interest. Laster also contended that it was a “noteworthy exception” for Mattis to perform the ceremony. Secretaries of defense, she wrote, don’t hold swearing-in events…
The swearing-in was canceled only hours before it was scheduled to occur.
Bezos would’ve certainly been sworn into that board had Laster not had the courage to speak up. She later received her reward.
Laster did her best to enforce the rules. She would challenge the Pentagon’s cozy relationship not only with Bezos, but with Google’s Eric Schmidt, the chairman of the defense board that Bezos sought to join. The ultimate resolution? Laster was shunted aside. She was removed from the innovation board in November 2017 (but remains at the Defense Department). “Roma was removed because she insisted on them following the rules,” said a former DOD official knowledgeable about her situation.
Real whistleblowers are never celebrated by mass media and are always punished. That’s how you distinguish a real whistleblower from a fraud.
As mentioned above, Laster also called out and angered Eric Schmidt who, as chairman of Alphabet (Google, Youtube, etc), was trying to sell services to the Pentagon while at the same time serving as Chairman of the Department of Defense’s Innovation Board. That’s about as incestuous and corrupt as it gets.
Schmidt, the chairman of the innovation board, embraced the mission. In the spring and summer of 2016, he embarked, with fellow board members, on a series of visits to Pentagon operations around the world. Schmidt visited a submarine base in San Diego, an aircraft carrier off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and Creech Air Force Base, located deep in the Nevada desert near Area 51.
Inside the drone operations center at Creech, according to three people familiar with the trip, Schmidt observed video as a truck in a contested zone somewhere was surveilled by a Predator drone and annihilated. It was a mesmerizing display of the U.S. military’s lethal reach…
A little more than a year after Schmidt’s visit, Google won a $17 million subcontract in a project called Maven to help the military use image recognition software to identify drone targets — exactly the kind of function that Schmidt witnessed at Creech…
Schmidt’s influence, already strong under Carter, only grew when Mattis arrived as defense secretary. Schmidt’s travel privileges at the DOD, which required painstaking approval from the agency’s chief of staff for each stop of every trip, were suddenly unfettered after Schmidt requested carte blanche, according to three sources knowledgeable about the matter. Mattis granted him and the board permission to travel anywhere they wanted and to talk to anyone at the DOD on all but the most secret programs.
Such access is unheard-of for executives or directors of companies that sell to the government, say three current and former DOD officials, both to prevent opportunities for bribery or improper influence and to ensure that one company does not get advantages over others. “Mattis changed the rules of engagement and the muscularity of the innovation board went from zero to 60,” said a person who has served on Pentagon advisory boards. “There’s a lot of opportunity for mischief”…
Over the next months, Schmidt and two other board members with Google ties would continue flying all over the country, visiting Pentagon installations and meeting with DOD officials, sessions that no other company could attend. It’s hard to reconstruct what occurred in many of those meetings, since they were private. On one occasion, Schmidt quizzed a briefer about which cloud service provider was being used for a data project, according to a memo that Laster prepared after the briefing. When the briefer told him that Amazon handled the business, Schmidt asked if they’d considered other cloud providers. Laster’s memo flagged Schmidt’s inquiry as a “point of concern,” given that he was the chairman of a major cloud provider.
The DOD became unusually deferential to Schmidt. He preferred to travel on his personal jet, and he would ferry fellow board members with him. But that created a problem for his handlers: DOD employees are not permitted to ride on private planes. Still, the staff at the board didn’t want to inconvenience Schmidt by making him wait for his department support team to arrive on commercial flights. So, according to a source knowledgeable about the board’s spending, on at least one occasion the department requisitioned military aircraft at a cost of $25,000 an hour to transport its employees to meet Schmidt on his tour. (The DOD’s spokesperson said employees did this because “there were no commercial flights available.”)
Similar to the situation with Bezos, Roma Laster started asking questions, which angered master of the tech and military-industrial-complex universe Eric Schmidt.
Schmidt responded by threatening to go over her head to Mattis, according to her grievance. She was told to stand down and never again speak to Schmidt. According to the grievance, her boss told her, “Mr. Schmidt was a billionaire and would never accept pushback, warnings or limits.”
There’s so much more in this excellent article, but the key takeaway is the troubling extent of the existing merger between tech giants and the national security state. Disturbingly, this appears to have become even worse in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations, and the reasons why are clear. First, there are billions upon billions of dollars to be made. Second, nobody from the private sector ever gets punished for violating the civil liberties of the American public on behalf of the government and intelligence agencies. On the contrary, the only people who ever lose their freedoms and livelihoods are those who blow the whistle on government criminality (Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, just to name a few).
Which brings up a very uncomfortable, yet fundamental question. How dangerous are tech giants that have near monopoly level power in core areas such as communications and online retail and also enjoy state sponsorship and the total immunity that comes with it? Add to the equation the enormous amount of money up for grabs provided you play ball with the national security state and you have a very precarious situation. This isn’t a hypothetical future dystopian scenario. It’s where we stand today.
Facebook and Google are two companies with known ties to the national security state that together have enormous control over who, for all practical purposes, gets to speak in the modern online public square. Then consider that the tech giants represent a perfect vehicle for the national security state to censor or disappear from the conversation those deemed problematic to imperial narratives.
The U.S. government cannot explicitly restrict most kinds of speech, but tech giants can do whatever they please and don’t even need to provide a reasonable justification. This means any relationship between companies with this sort of online speech-policing power and the national security state is extremely dangerous. It’s a conduit for fascism.
Then there’s Amazon. A company that has a $600 million contract with the CIA, has used questionable practices in attempts to secure a $10 billion JEDI cloud deal with Pentagon, is aggressively marketing its facial recognition software to police departments across the country, and is coaching cops on how to obtain surveillance footage from its Ring doorbell camera without a warrant. But it gets even worse.
In light of recent public concerns around facial recognition, Bezos and his company are actively writing legislation for Congress on the issue.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos says his company is developing a set of laws to regulate facial recognition technology that it plans to share with federal lawmakers.
In February, the company, which has faced escalating scrutiny over its controversial facial recognition tech, called Amazon Rekognition, published guidelines it said it hoped lawmakers would consider enacting. Now Amazon is taking another step, Bezos told reporters in a surprise appearance following Amazon’s annual Alexa gadget event in Seattle on Wednesday.
“Our public policy team is actually working on facial recognition regulations; it makes a lot of sense to regulate that,” Bezos said in response to a reporter’s question.
The idea is that Amazon will write its own draft of what it thinks federal legislation should look like, and it will then pitch lawmakers to adopt as much of it as possible…
In a statement, ACLU Northern CA Attorney Jacob Snow said:
“It’s a welcome sign that Amazon is finally acknowledging the dangers of face surveillance. But we’ve seen this playbook before. Once companies realize that people are demanding strong privacy protections, they sweep in, pushing weak rules that won’t protect consumer privacy and rights. Cities across the country are voting to ban face surveillance, while Amazon is pushing its surveillance tech deeper into communities.”
Meanwhile, Amazon is now using mafia tactics to pressure retailers who feel forced to use the platform given its dominance in online retail, to pay for advertising. It’s not just small brands under the gun, even large companies with high name recognition like Samsonite are being twisted via increasingly unethical practices.
As Recode’s Jason Del Rey explored in his Land of the Giants podcast about the rise of Amazon, companies that sell on Amazon are increasingly having to pay to show up in search results — even when people are searching for their specific brands.
Case in point: the luggage brand Samsonite, which has to pay for sponsored ads in order to be the top result when you search “Samsonite” on Amazon.
As Samsonite’s Chief E-commerce Officer Charlie Cole told Del Rey, “Amazon is making money off your products, making money off your data by creating brands, and Amazon is making money off the privilege of being on their platform by selling you advertising to protect your brand.”
“It’s been a tough relationship,” he added.
Think about how completely insane that is, yet it’s also exactly what you’d expect to happen when one company comes to completely dominate a space as fundamental to the modern economy as online shopping.
Naturally, there’s more. It’s been well documented how Amazon uses its knowledge of product sales on its platform to then rip off existing brands by copying them and making its own version.
The more connected these tech giants are to the national security state, the more dangerous and unassailable they become. A destructive process which is already very much underway.
Centralized and unaccountable government power is alway an existential threat to human liberty, but centralized and unaccountable government power exercised via tech behemoths which aren’t restrained by the Constitution is even worse. This is the world being built around us, and we’d be wise to address it soon.