The world’s largest online retailer and cloud storage provider. It’s the largest provider of cloud computing for US immigration authorities as well as the Israeli government and military, and also supports prison and police surveillance.
Amazon.com is a multinational technology company headquartered in Seattle and focusing on e-commerce, cloud computing, digital media streaming, and artificial intelligence. Amazon Web Services (AWS) is the world’s largest provider of cloud storage services, controlling about one-third of the global market. As of 2020, Amazon employed 1.2 million workers and reported $386 billion in annual revenue, with sales from AWS totaling $45 billion.
Amazon’s government-facing cloud infrastructure service, AWS GovCloud, is the largest cloud provider for the U.S. government. As of 2021, it serves 6,500 government agencies and has 725 authorizations to provide the government with cloud services. Amazon provides its government services both directly and via third parties. From 2007 to August 2021, Amazon was directly awarded 1,415 contracts worth a potential $1.4 billion by the U.S. government and was awarded at least $6.3 billion via other companies, in contracts that explicitly provide Amazon’s flagship cloud products. Many Amazon contracts are not included in the above figure because they are provided through another company and not disclosed as related to Amazon.
Immigration Surveillance and Deportations
Amazon’s government cloud platform AWS GovCloud is used to host many of the databases and systems that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its agencies Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) use to track, monitor, and deport immigrants.
Since Amazon typically does not supply cloud services directly to the government, but through third-party providers, it is difficult to identify all DHS systems that are stored on AWS. However, according to the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP), which sets security and compliance standards for U.S. government cloud services, AWS GovCloud is the most commonly used cloud platform by DHS. Examples of DHS systems known to be hosted on AWS GovCloud include:
- Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology System (HART) - DHS’s central biometric database in development, has been hosted on AWS since its inception. Designed by Northrop Grumman, HART can store, match, process, and share biometric and biographic information on hundreds of millions of people, significantly expanding the use of facial recognition and storage capacity of its predecessor system, IDENT. In 2020, DHS broadened the types of biometrics it can require from immigrants and nearly doubled the number of people required to submit biometric information. HART also sources this information from and shares it with other federal agencies, local law enforcement, and some foreign governments.
- Investigative Case Management (ICM) - this Palantir-designed ICE system was migrated to AWS in 2018 by Booz Allen Hamilton. The system stores immigrants’ data from multiple sources, including family relationships, immigration history, employment history, biometric identification, license plate numbers, social media profiles, and contact information. ICE has used ICM to target and deport individuals at unprecedented levels during the Obama and Trump administrations. The system was used in 2017 to track down the parents and other relatives of unaccompanied minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, in what turned out to be a precursor to the Trump administration’s family separation policy.
- ATLAS - a USCIS database used to target immigrants afterthey receive citizenship for the purpose of revoking it. The system pulls information from immigration case files in search of “fraud patterns in immigration benefit filings … either pre- or post-adjudication,” meaning that those with citizenship continue to be monitored potentially indefinitely.
- Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS) - a database that ICE accesses through ICM to build cases for prosecution.
- Customer Profile Management Service (CPMS) - a USCIS database containing biometric and biographic information on immigrants applying for residency. CPMS interfaces with FBI databases to run background checks on applicants. DHS can retain data collected in the system for 100 years after a person’s date of birth.
- Refugee Case Processing and Security Vetting - this USCIS system runs background checks on refugees and includes data from other agencies in the U.S. intelligence community, allowing “users to input, monitor, update, and communicate refugee case statuses and decisions.”
Trying to expand its services to DHS beyond cloud storage, Amazon pitched to ICE its facial recognition software, Rekognition, in 2018. However, there is no evidence that ICE uses Rekognition. More information about Rekognition is below, in the section about police surveillance.
Amazon owns a minority stake in Air Transport Services Group (ATSG), an airline holding company that provides deportation flights for ICE. ATSG’s cargo airline Air Transport International is one of two airlines that comprise the bulk of Amazon’s air fleet (“Amazon Air”), since Amazon established it in 2016. ATSG reports having a “long-standing, strategic customer relationship” with Amazon, which accounted for 30% of ATSG's 2020 revenue. Amazon acquired a 19.5% stake in ATSG in 2020 and has the option to increase its share to 40%.
ATSG’s passenger charter airline, Omni Air International, is the sole provider of “special high-risk charter” deportation flights for ICE, as no other company can provide these services on ICE’s schedule. These are flights that involve deporting people who “fail to comply” with ICE’s orders or other “high-profile” deportations. ICE does not contract Omni Air directly for deportation flights, but through an intermediary broker company called Classic Air Charter, which arranges most ICE air deportations.
On some of these flights, ICE has reportedly uses a device called the WRAP, a full-body, straitjacket-like restraint. In a 2016 documented case, ICE agents used excessive violence while using this device, pinning individuals to the ground face-down before the flight, and beating them up and tasing them while they were in the restraint. In a 2020 case, which was the subject of civil rights complaint, ICE agents “immobilized the men with The WRAP, applying it on top of five-point shackles, binding their legs together, and cinching them up at a 45-degree angle, in some cases for hours, which left them shrieking in pain.” The device is made by Safe Restraints, a privately-owned company based in Diablo, CA. It is also used by hundreds of law enforcement agencies and prisons across the U.S. and has been implicated in multiple fatalities.
Another ATSG subsidiary, Cargo Aircraft Management, has contracted the Israeli military company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) to convert Boeing 767 aircraft from a passenger to cargo configuration for Amazon's fleet. As of 2019, 80% of Amazon’s cargo planes were reportedly converted by IAI.
Amazon Web Services (AWS) hosts multiple products that are used to surveil people who are incarcerated in the U.S. Similarly to its business with DHS, Amazon does not generally provide these services directly to prison authorities, but through third-party providers, making it difficult to identify the full extent of Amazon’s involvement in the prison industry. Below are just two known examples out of likely many more.
LEO Technologies, a high-tech surveillance company that develops applications specifically for prisons and police departments, uses AWS for its Versus phone monitoring system. Versus automates prison phone monitoring so that prison guards can receive near real-time alerts about what the people they incarcerate talk about, without having to manually listen to hours of calls. The company operates in at least 26 prisons in 11 states. It uses AWS cloud computing to transcribe the recorded calls and then analyzes the text for specified keywords. Beginning in 2020, LEO Technologies started claiming that Versus can help detect COVID-19 within prisons, a practice that has been criticized by the ACLU.
JailCore, a company that develops prison management systems, uses AWS to store detailed information about the daily activities of people who are incarcerated, including when they use the restroom, shower, eat, receive visits and packages, and participate in recreational activities. JailCore’s data stored on AWS was found in 2020 to be unsecured, having leaked 36,077 people’s records in several U.S. states.
Police Surveillance: Ring and Rekognition
Amazon’s subsidiary Ring makes “smart” doorbells with video/motion cameras and allows police to access and use the footage it collects. In 2018, three months after Amazon acquired Ring, it launched the Neighbors app, which allows users to report crimes and upload footage captured by their Ring devices. Ring has a designated Law Enforcement Neighbors Portal which allows police departments to request, obtain, view, and download Ring footage without a warrant and to store that footage indefinitely. This tool is tailored to police processes, for example by allowing police to organize videos according to investigation case numbers.
More than just a doorbell company, Ring brands itself as a law enforcement company and has been aggressively marketing its technology for police use. In 2016, before it was acquired by Amazon, Ring’s CEO boasted that the company is “officially declaring war” on “dirtbag criminals.” Ring hosts annual parties at the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference and has trained police departments on obtaining video footage without a warrant. Police departments sign agreements with Ring that give them free access to the Neighbors Portal in return for encouraging the communities they police to use Ring devices and the Neighbors app. Ring also offered its users product discounts if they report “suspicious activity” to the police. In one instance, the El Monte Police Department in California promised people free Ring devices in exchange for testifying in criminal cases.
Police use of this tool is rapidly increasing. The number of U.S. police departments that use Rings’ Neighbors Portal reached at least 1,887 by August 2021, including some of the largest cities in the U.S., such as Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, San Francisco, and San Jose. Prior to 2019, only 60 police departments used Ring. Ring’s policies and law enforcement relationships jeopardize privacy, lack regulation, rely on fear-mongering, and enable over-policing, increased surveillance, and racial profiling, in what the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls a “digital porch-to-police pipeline.”
Amazon has plans to equip Ring doorbells with facial recognition tools for police use. According to the ACLU, Amazon filed a patent application for a Ring doorbell with facial recognition software that police could use to match faces from doorbell video feeds with their internal photo databases. This system would implement “watch lists” that could alert police when certain individuals are captured by a doorbell camera. Until facial recognition is integrated into its doorbell, Ring relies on workers from its Ukraine office to manually tag people and objects found in its video feeds. In 2020, Ring received over 1,800 police requests to access its video feeds but refused to disclose how many users’ footage was shared with police.
In addition to Ring, Amazon sells its facial recognition software Rekognition, to law enforcement agencies. Using facial recognition and facial analysis technology, Rekognition can identify people in a crowd in real-time by pulling facial IDs from a single video frame, store this data for later use, and cross-reference it against databases.
It is unknown which and how many police departments in the U.S. use Rekognition, and even Amazon claimed it does not know or keep track of this information. The company provided Rekognition to the Orlando Police Department in 2017 as a free pilot. The Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon also used Rekognition but claimed to have stopped in 2020. In 2018, Amazon pitched its Rekognition software to ICE. The ACLU has charged that Rekognition can be misused by law enforcement for mass surveillance of immigrants, protestors, and activists. The ACLU also demonstrated how Rekognition yields many false matches, with a disproportionate error rate for communities of color.
In 2018, in response to mounting public, investor, and employee pressures, the company stated that it was “unwaveringly in support of our law enforcement, defense, and intelligence community,” even if it does not “know everything they’re actually utilizing the tool for.” However, amidst nationwide protests against police brutality, in 2020 Amazon announced “a one-year moratorium on police use of [its] facial recognition technology,” except to “help rescue human trafficking victims and reunite missing children with their families.” Similarly, Amazon’s subsidiary Ring stated that it “will neither sell nor offer facial recognition technology to law enforcement.” As detailed above, Ring does not yet have facial recognition capabilities. In May 2021, Amazon announced it would extend its moratorium “until further notice,” but Ring keeps signing new law enforcement agreements.
Israel's Nimbus Project and other Violations of Palestinian Rights
Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud Platform are developing a new cloud infrastructure for the Israeli government. Dubbed Project Nimbus, this is one of the largest technology projects in Israel’s history. The two companies’ role in the project is providing cloud infrastructure for the government, initially through their existing data centers located outside Israel, but from 2023 through new local data centers they are contracted to set up.
Amazon and Google were selected for the Nimbus Project in April 2021 and are splitting the $1.2 billion contract. As part of the contract, the two companies have also committed to “reciprocal procurement and industrial cooperation in Israel at the rate of 20% of the contract value.”
In a separate tender, Israel contracted consulting firm Somekh Chaikin-KPMG, an affiliate of the Anglo-Dutch multinational KPMG, to establish a government cloud migration strategy. In a third tender, which is yet to be concluded as of October 2021, the Israeli government will contract dozens of local companies to migrate its databases and systems to the Amazon and Google servers.
The Nimbus project will serve all the branches and units of the Israeli government. This includes the Israeli military, which also played a leading role in designing the Nimbus tender, as well as the Israeli police, prison service, land authority, and other government entities that administer Israel’s policies of apartheid and persecution. While initially excluded from Nimbus, municipal and local governments will eventually also be able to use the system. This means that Nimbus could also directly serve Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights.
Knowing that this project is controversial and would draw negative public attention to Amazon and Google, the Israeli government built clauses into the contract to prevent them from withdrawing. A government lawyer said the tender was designed to prevent the companies from shutting down services altogether or “denying services to particular government entities.”
In October 2021, hundreds of Amazon and Google employees published a joint statement calling on the two companies to pull out of the project. The workers argue that Project Nimbus “allows for further surveillance of and unlawful data collection on Palestinians, and facilitates expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land.” The statement further reads,
“We envision a future where technology brings people together and makes life better for everyone. To build that brighter future, the companies we work for need to stop contracting with any and all militarized organizations in the US and beyond.” The workers conclude by calling “on global technology workers and the international community to join with us in building a world where technology promotes safety and dignity for all.”
Project Nimbus is not the first Amazon involvement in human rights violations as part of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The company’s online retail platform and its Whole Foods stores carry many products that are manufactured in Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. This includes, for example, Dead Sea cosmetics by Ahava Dead Sea Laboratories, tahini products by Ahdut/Achva, mounting systems by Barkan, and many more.
In 2019, Amazon started offering free shipping to Israel, including its illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. However, the company did not offer a comparable service in the occupied Palestinian territory, including towns and villages located very close to Israeli illegal settlements. In March 2020, Amazon reversed its policy and started offering free delivery to customers in the occupied Palestinian territories.
From 2000 to August 2021, Amazon spent $5.8 million in campaign contributions to U.S. candidates in federal elections. It has donated to both Republican and Democratic candidates through its political action committee (PAC). In addition, Amazon spent $121.7 million in lobbying expenses from 2013 to August 2021 on issues such as National Defense Authorization Act, Antitrust law reform, infrastructure, cybersecurity, IT and cloud systems, cross border data flows, postal reform, facial recognition technology, among hundreds of other issues.
By 2020, Amazon and Facebook were the largest corporate lobbying spenders in the U.S., spending twice as much as oil and tobacco giants Exxon and Phillip Morris. The extent of Big Tech companies’ political clout within the U.S. government has raised concerns among activists, consumers, and tech workers that this money might influence key political decisions regarding digital privacy protection, antitrust laws, and fair working conditions.
Since 2010, Amazon has hired many former U.S. government officials. According to investigative news organization Mother Jones, it has hired at least 247 government officials, 150 of which are related to the intelligence and defense community. The list includes officials from the Pentagon, Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. military, and the FBI. Many U.S lawmakers have also been hired by Amazon and have even lobbied on the company’s behalf in Congress. As of 2021, former Obama press secretary Jay Carney holds a top executive position at Amazon, reporting directly to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
Amazon’s controversies are too numerous to list and include dismal working conditions, union busting, monopolistic behavior, tax avoidance, and fueling the climate crisis.
In 2020, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) awarded Amazon a “secret” contract potentially worth “tens of billions of dollars” to continue providing cloud computing services to the agency. Although the nature and details of the contract remain classified, prior contracts have raised concerns about how much Amazon is willing to share with the CIA (i.e. customer data). Amazon has applauded the CIA’s willingness and commitment to extend its use of cloud computing, as the agency opened up a bidding process in 2019 to expand its initial $600 million cloud infrastructure developed entirely by AWS in 2013.
Amazon has introduced biometric technologies for commercial uses in addition to government use. The company developed Amazon One, a palm print scanner for customers to make payments at Amazon stores. In 2021, Amazon announced the technology would be used for concert entry at Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, escalating concerns about how else the technology could be used in the future. Hundreds of artists and organizations called on Red Rocks to cancel contracts and use of Amazon One.