November 5, 2014

Activists put up billboard on Amazon’s doorstep


Amazon employees heading into work at the Seattle office will find something new on their route these days: a 48-foot billboard with the words “What’s the CIA Doing on Amazon’s Cloud?” across it.

It’s the work of two activist groups, RootsAction and ExposeFacts, and follows on from a petition earlier in the year that asked Amazon to commit to its customers that it wouldn’t share their data with the CIA. Amazon provides cloud computing services for the CIA, a contract it won last fall after beating out IBM.

The billboard aims to raise questions about the relationship between the two, which we know relatively little about. Or, we know a bit about what services Amazon is providing the government (see this Atlantic article), but we don’t know anything about the prospects that might keep you up at night.

For instance, we don’t know whether, as blogger Marcy Wheeler writes, “there will be any overlap between the physical hardware serving Amazon’s commercial cloud service and what is provided to the CIA.” Or whether Amazon has put any systems in place to prevent the CIA from gaining access to commercial data.

And even if the CIA were not taking the opportunity to behave nefariously, we still don’t know what kind of relationship the two really have, because Amazon, unlike most other major tech companies, doesn’t “issue periodic transparency reports detailing the frequency and number of requests for customer data by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.” (Mike Masnick, TechDirt)

So we have vast pools of data and the CIA’s equally vast desire to know things about you and all your friends and loved ones, and no sense that Amazon thinks or cares that this might be a problem. You really do not have to be paranoid in any way—you could be fundamentally blithe and carefree and trusting—and this would still be like paint thinner for the cranial nerves. What if the CIA takes advantage of the arrangement and creeps around in Amazon’s commercial data, as they did recently to the Senate? What if Amazon’s turning over information about their customers to the CIA right now, with no accountability?

Norman Solomon, one of the co-founders of RootsAction, put it mildly, commenting that “the circumstances are ominous.”


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.