In Part 1 of our investigative series on Surveillance Capitalism, MPN spoke to author Yasha Levine and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster about the rise of the Amazon.com empire and its fusion with the U.S. state apparatus.
In our next installments, we will continue exploring the rise of Surveillance Capitalism and the implications of Amazon-fueled spying technology, both in the workplace and in U.S. city streets.
“Capitalism is a system that seeks to transgress all boundaries in its production and sale of commodities, commodifying everything in existence, which today, in the age of monopoly-finance capital and surveillance capitalism, means intruding into every aspect of existence,” John Bellamy Foster told MPN.
This year may go down in history as a turning-point when the world finally woke up to the dark side of the ubiquitous presence of popular Silicon Valley companies in our daily lives. One can only hope so, at least.
From Amazon to Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and PayPal—among others—revelations poured out confirming the ongoing abuse of user data by monopolistic corporations, as well as their growing role as vendors of surveillance technology to the U.S. police state, military, and migrant detention agencies.
In March, the lid was blown off of the violation of user data on Facebook, with Cambridge Analytica mining user information for the purpose of providing millions of detailed “psychological profiles” to the Trump campaign, among others. Scarcely two weeks later, the Google campus was in an uproar over the development of its “Project Maven,” which was building an AI-fueled platform to vastly upgrade the automatic targeting abilities of the U.S. military’s global drone fleet. Faced with public outrage and internal dissent, the company pulled out of bidding to renew its Pentagon contract, which ends next year.
Now, employees and shareholders of Amazon.com—the world’s largest online marketer and cloud-computing provider—are demanding that chief executive Jeff Bezos halt the sale of its facial recognition or Amazon Web Services (AWS) Rekognition service to law enforcement agencies across the U.S., including to the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (DHS-ICE).
“As ethically concerned Amazonians, we demand a choice in what we build, and a say in how it is used,” the letter said. “We learn from history, and we understand how IBM’s systems were employed in the 1940s to help Hitler.
“IBM did not take responsibility then, and by the time their role was understood, it was too late,” it continued, referring to collusion with the operation of Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War. “We will not let that happen again. The time to act is now.”
Unveiled in November 2016 as a part of the AWS cloud suite, Rekognition analyzes images and video footage to recognize objects while providing analytics to users. It also lets clients “identify people of interest against a collection of millions of faces in near real-time, enabling use cases such as timely and accurate crime prevention,” according to promotional material. Law enforcement agencies like the Washington County Sheriff’s Department pay as little as $6 to $12 a month for access to the platform, giving deputies the ability to scan its mugshot database against real-time footage.
Amazon employees cited a report from the ACLU that notes that AWS Rekognition “raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns” owing to its “capacity for abuse.” Its uses could include monitoring protest activity, as well as the possibility that ICE could employ the technology to continuously track immigrants and advance its “zero tolerance” policy of detaining migrant families and children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the letter distributed on email list “we-won’t-build-it,” Amazon employees lay out their opposition to their employer’s collusion with the police and the DHS-ICE migrant-capture and mass-incarceration regime:
We don’t have to wait to find out how these technologies will be used. We already know that in the midst of historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of Black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses—this will be another powerful tool for the surveillance state, and ultimately serve to harm the most marginalized.
The furor surrounding AWS Rekognition is hardly a revelation to journalist Yasha Levine. Instead, as is the case with Google and other flagship firms’ work for Washington, it’s just another chapter in Silicon Valley’s long-time integration into the repressive state apparatus.
“This isn’t so much a big step to some ‘Surveillance Apocalypse,’ it’s just an indication of where we’ve been for a long time,” Levine told MintPress News.
OMG! No way! https://t.co/VWkT0Rv19n
— Yasha Levine (@yashalevine) June 22, 2018
Yet the Amazon workers’ outrage was likely provoked by recent headlines highlighting the Trump administration’s separation of Central American migrant families at the concentration camps along the Southern border—along with the key role Amazon plays for ICE’s data “ecosystem,” crucial to the operation of ICE’s immigrant enforcement, mass incarceration, and removal regime.
In their letter, Amazon’s employees decried the role the company plays in the platform Palantir provides for ICE:
We also know that Palantir runs on AWS. And we know that ICE relies on Palantir to power its detention and deportation programs. Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as U.S. authorities tore children away from their parents. Since April 19, 2018 the Department of Homeland Security has sent nearly 2,000 children to mass detention centers … In the face of this immoral U.S. policy, and the U.S.’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS.
In 2014, ICE gave Palantir a $41 million contract for the Investigative Case Management (ICM) system, which expanded its capacity for data-sharing between the bureau and other agency databases including those of the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, among others. The contract allowed ICE to significantly boost its ability to capture and incarcerate unauthorized migrants based on the disparate data Palantir collated and hosted on Amazon Web Services’ servers.
Watch | Palantir 101
“What Amazon has simply done is allow everyone to lease that [Rekognition] capability the way that you would lease its web space, or have a pay-as-you-go plan with Amazon,” Levine commented .
In his new book, Surveillance Valley: The Hidden History of the Internet, Levine details the romance enjoyed between Big Data and the U.S. repressive state. In the introduction to his book, he notes :
From Amazon to eBay to Facebook—most of the Internet companies we use every day have also grown into powerful corporations that track and profile their users while pursuing partnerships and business relationships with major U.S. military and intelligence agencies. Some parts of these companies are so thoroughly intertwined with America’s security services that it is hard to tell where they end and the U.S. government begins.
Having conquered retail and the internet, Amazon looks to the state and says “Forward”
Conceived by founder Jeff Bezos as an “everything store” selling products from books to DVDs and music, Amazon has long been a scourge to the traditional brick-and-mortar marketplace, spending the late 1990s and the 2000s sweeping big and small booksellers alike into the ash-heap of retail history.
“Amazon has now become the de facto store for everything in America—it’s shocking to think about how much we buy from it and how much money we give away to it,” Levine said, adding that the company’s power as a business “is kind of depressing.”
The company has also become the world’s premier internet hosting firm through its Amazon Web Services cloud computing platform. From 2006 on, AWS played a similar role to Amazon.com’s retail platform in regard to small-fry-displacing traditional corporate data centers and information technology (IT) professionals, providing a previously unimaginable level of centralization in terms of data storage and IT functionality at a low cost. For some time even Dropbox found shelter under the AWS cloud.
Watch | Amazon.com and Jeff Bezos In 1999
The company’s success as the world’s biggest retailer and cloud computing service was closely related to Amazon’s surveillance efforts directed not only toward consumers, but against its huge and heavily-exploited employee workforce. As Levine detailed in his book:
[Amazon] recorded people’s shopping habits, their movie preferences, the books they were interested in, how fast they read books on their Kindles, and the highlights and margin notes they made. It also monitored its warehouse workers, tracking their movements and timing their performance.
Amazon requires incredible processing power to run such a massive data business, a need that spawned a lucrative side business of renting out space on its massive servers to other companies.
In the 2012 U.S. presidential election, AWS software provided nearly all aspects of then-incumbent President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign software and big-data analysis, ranging from web management to mailing-list management, data modeling, volunteer dispatching, voter-information database maintenance and “massive transaction processing” for donations.
Watch | Obama for America on AWS
By early 2013, a secretive deal awarded Amazon a 10-year, $600-million contract to provide cloud services to the Central Intelligence Agency and the 17 agencies comprising the intelligence community.
Langley’s contract with such a commercially-oriented company as Amazon, rather than rival bidder IBM, sent shockwaves through the tech industry, but the company boasted that it reflected the “superior technology platform” it could provide to the CIA along with its ability to deliver “the confidence and security assurance needed for mission-critical systems.”
Amazon’s platform will soon be the venue for a major intelligence project by the CIA dubbed “Mesa Verde,” which will see the agency’s AWS-built C2S cloud software deployed in multiple experiments meant to parse thousands of terabytes of data, including public web data, using natural language processing tools, sentiment analysis, and data visualization.
According to a Bloomberg Government report in May, AWS is the only private cloud platform granted clearance to store agency information marked “Secret.”
Amazon’s CIA partnership: Surveillance Capitalism in action
Amazon’s partnership with Langley is just another case of surveillance capitalism in action, according to sociology professor and author John Bellamy Foster, the editor of the venerable independent socialist journal Monthly Review.
Speaking to MintPress News, Foster explained:
Amazon now seems to be landing one contract after another with the military and intelligence sectors in the United States…[The CIA cloud] is built on the premises of a private corporation, a kind of ‘walled castle’ for intelligence [spy] agency communication separate from the rest of the Internet, but principally operated by a for-profit corporation. Amazon also has a $1 billion contract with the Security and Exchange Commission, works with NASA, the Food and Drug Administration and other government agencies.
In a 2014 essay for Monthly Review, Foster and Robert W. McChesney introduced the term surveillance capitalism in reference to the process of finance capital monetizing data extracted through surveillance operations performed in collusion with the state apparatus. The two trace the political-economic roots of the the data-driven Information Age from the early stages of the military-industrial complex to the 1950s fusion of consumer capitalism—corporations, ad agencies, and media—with the permanent warfare state, eventually leading to the birth of satellite technology, the internet, and the domination of a handful of monopolist tech firms during the present era of neoliberal globalization.
From the tech sector’s role in police-state operations to the expansion of “Smart” technology like Amazon’s Alexa into our homes, the use of drones and AI for keeping tabs on the entire population, and the manipulation of Facebook user data by the Trump campaign’s partnership with Cambridge Analytica, Foster is unequivocal in his judgment of surveillance capitalism’s metastasizing growth and its omniscient role in our daily lives:
The implications for the future are staggering.
Not everyone shares Foster’s pessimistic perspective. To former CIA cybersecurity researcher John Pirc, the agency contract with Amazon represented the removal of a “clouded judgment”-based stigma over cloud computing security. Speaking to The Atlantic, Pirc commented:
You hear so many people on the fence about cloud, and then to see the CIA gobble it up and do something so highly disruptive, it’s kind of cool.
Holy Disruption and the “Gale Force of Creative Destruction”
Creation, epiphany, genesis, prophecy, rapture, sacrifice, wrath; such sacred words pepper the Old and New Testaments and still carry divine significance for the faithful. Beloved by clergy and revered by the flock, such consecrated terms hardly apply to Apple’s bitten-fruit logo or Alexa’s profanely secular robotic voice.
But in today’s cult of high technology and the internet—where entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have been elevated to the level of prophets or pharaohs, and start-ups are evangelized at TED Talks as the panacea to problems ranging from physical fitness to refugee crises—a new ecclesiastical lexicon is used. Central to this pseudo-religion of Big Data is the phrase disruption, an oft-invoked term signifying the replacement of old markets and business models by new technological innovations.
As Silicon Valley pioneer, computer scientist, and critic Jaron Lanier noted in his 2013 book Who Owns the Future?:
The terminology of ‘disruption’ has been granted an almost sacred status in tech business circles… To disrupt is the most celebrated achievement. In Silicon Valley, one is always hearing that this or that industry is ripe for disruption. We kid ourselves, pretending that disruption requires creativity. It doesn’t. It’s always the same story.
For Lanier—a fervent defender of capitalism—the D-word is misused to convey the liberating potential of new technology, when in fact the reign of big tech firms has led to a shrunken market dominated by “a small number of spying operations in omniscient positions.” Thus the digital landscape has become the fiefdom of monopoly firms who exercise an iron grip on competitors and Big Data’s primary commodities—internet users and their data.
To Foster, this process is little more than neoliberalism—the prevailing capitalist ideology dictating the unimpeded control over all aspects of public life by finance capital and the market. Foster notes that neoliberal orthodoxy is rooted in the concept of creative destruction, the concept from which the “disruption” buzzword is derived.
Creative destruction was introduced in 1942 by Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter to describe a process of constant change under capitalism, whereby emerging entrepreneurs act as “innovation powerhouses” through a “perennial gale of creative destruction” that disorganizes and displaces competition, reshapes global markets, and paves the way to an emergence of new monopolies such as, for example, Silicon Valley’s leading firms.
Watch | Greenspan on Schumpeter’s “Creative Destruction”
“One of the key components of neoliberal ideology has been the opening up of the system to the unrestricted growth of monopolistic corporations and monopoly power,” Foster said to MintPress News, adding:
The neoliberal age has thus seen one of the greatest periods of growth of monopoly power, particularly in the cyber or digital realm, in all of history. If you take Google, Amazon, and Facebook, none of them even existed 25 years ago, and Facebook didn’t exist 15 years ago. Amazon had a 51 percent increase in market capitalization between 2016 and 2017 alone. These are giant monopolistic enterprises.
Continuing, Foster explained:
In general, capitalism is a system that seeks to transgress all boundaries in its production and sale of commodities, commodifying everything in existence—which today, in the age of monopoly-finance capital and surveillance capitalism, means intruding into every aspect of existence as a means of manipulating not only the physical world, but also the minds and lives of everyone within it. It is this that constitutes the heart of surveillance capitalism.
But this same system of monopoly-finance capital has as its counterpart a growing centralization of power and wealth, increasing monopoly control, expanding militarism and imperialism, and an expansion of police power. It is what the political theorist Sheldon Wolin called ‘inverted totalitarianism,’ the growth of totalizing control of the population, and the destruction of human freedom under the mask of an ideology of individualism.
As Amazon now approaches its 25-year anniversary, Foster notes, it’s become “a vast cultural (or anti-cultural) commodity empire”—and its ownership of The Washington Post has made clear the monopoly firm’s fusion with the state apparatus of U.S. imperialism.
Amazon clutches the “Newspaper of Record,” or “Democracy Dies in Darkness”
Since Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post in 2013 for $250 million, the leading newspaper of the U.S. capital has stood at the ramparts of Fortress Amazon. Beyond any elite squadron of lobbyists or contracts with the Homeland Security or National Security State, the newspaper’s influential role shaping public and policymaker opinion gives Jeff Bezos and his fellow Amazon executives unparalleled access to the halls of imperial power.
“Of course it’s a problem when a powerful, monopolistic business like this with a very controlling owner is in the media business as well,” Yasha Levine commented, adding:
Let’s be honest, Amazon is a major CIA contractor now, and now this major contractor owns one of the most important newspapers in the country—which also happens to report on the CIA and national security issues.
Since President Donald Trump came to power last January, “Amazon Washington Post” has been the target of the former reality-TV star’s ire as a top example of “fake news media.” While many of Trump’s attacks on the Post have been his standard Twitter outbursts against legitimate journalistic scrutiny, the newspaper once celebrated for publishing the groundbreaking 1971 Pentagon Papers is now both a bully pulpit for the president’s detractors in the Beltway liberal “resistance” and a mouthpiece of an aggressively neoliberal wing of the U.S. establishment.
“The Washington Post was always a liberal-capitalist paper, an arbiter of capitalist ideology and a defender of U.S. empire, [but] it has now become, as part of the Bezos empire, something worse,” Foster observed.
Scarcely a day passes without the Post publishing a torrent of stories seeking to expose “Russian interference” favoring Trump through social media or “fake news.” Citing the “experts” in “nonpartisan” media criticism group PropOrNot, the Post has smeared MintPress News and publications like Black Agenda Report, CounterPunch, and Truthout as propaganda platforms tied to the Kremlin without citing so much as a shred of evidence. Through its de facto blacklist, the group has also attempted to tie disparate independent media organizations to hard-right and white-supremacist outlets like Alex Jones’ Infowars and neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.
Watch | WaPo refuses to add disclosure about $600M CIA contract
The Washington Post has generally waged what amounts to an ideological war on basic progressive causes, Foster explained:
It recently ran an article describing the ‘far left’ as those who believed in single-payer health insurance or protecting national parks, as if even these traditional left-liberal causes were now far outside the range of acceptable political discourse—a stance clearly designed to ratchet the political discourse further to the right. Bezos and Amazon are simply symbols of this social retrogression, as is the current autocrat in the White House.
To Levine, the trend—like the ownership of muckraking news website The Intercept by billionaire Silicon Valley entrepreneur and eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar—goes beyond the Post alone. Levine commented:
It’s a larger issue of Silicon Valley coming into its own, and businesses built on top of the internet dominating business; and if you dominate business, you dominate society and news media coverage—that’s just the way things work.
Foster agrees, and minces no words depicting the danger Amazon’s growing power in U.S. society represents:
Democracy can be judged in various ways, but no definition of democracy—no matter how specious—is consistent with a society in which such vast class and monopoly power exist, and where the infrastructure of genuine democracy (education, communications, science, culture, public discourse, means of public protest) is demolished.
For this and other reasons, U.S. society and much of the capitalist world is shifting from neo-liberalism to something better described as neo-fascism.