April 2, 2014

The Department of Defense loves Amazon, because everything is terrifying


Weird how a place as inviting as this isn’t supporting indie bookstores.

It bears the occasional reminder that your favorite vendor of aloe-infused toilet wipes and distilled bookseller tears also has a major sideline in cloud computing services, including to the U.S. government. Amazon already provides the computing infrastructure for about 600 agencies—the CIA and the Navy being two of the most sensational. Now, as Mohana Ravindranath reports for the Washington Post it’s been cleared to work with some of the more secure divisions of the Department of Defense.

While Amazon Web Services is only a fraction of the company as a whole, it is often seen as one of the most promising avenues for growth, in part because the margins for running in-house server racks for major corporations, while still low, are better than for selling books. Or butt wipes. Amazon doesn’t break out revenues for AWS in their quarterly reports, instead bundling it into a catch-all category with their advertising services which, as we’ve discussed previously, Amazon is having a difficult time expanding. Together, those two divisions of the company brings in just shy of a billion dollars in revenues each quarter.

As Kevin Roose wrote for New York this week, “AWS has grown to host a shockingly large percentage of the internet—it’s been estimated that a third of internet users click on an AWS-hosted site every day.”

Amazon runs their web services a bit like the rest of Amazon, including a marketplace for ‘Partners’ where you can contract for online services from third parties. But the big money for Amazon Web Services is in top-to-bottom infrastructure contracts, and as the entirety of the U.S. military industrial complex knows, there’s no more lucrative contract than those from the Department of Defense.

Amazon has been certified as having “Authority to Operate” under the new government-wide FedRAMP certification system since last May, and this newest development is confirmation of a security confidence beyond that. FedRAMP certification dictates, among other things, a promise not to indulge in international arms trading. Presumably drone armies in a steely dripping cloaca beneath Seattle are okay. FedRAMP also requires annual reexamination of security clearance. Perhaps they’ll be in a good position to catch the strange spread of an ever more metallic Bezos laugh among I.T. teams in the Pentagon, where more frequent checks might miss it.

The new DoD certification entails, among other things, a few more hoops for sysadmins to jump through. The whole tiered approach to security from cloud computing services is laid out in this delightfully be-charted document. Trying to parse these pages of government acronyms is one of the most wonderfully puzzling things I’ve done today, by the way, and we work on books in entire other languages in this office.

In the end, this new certification for Amazon is akin to an announcement that my peanut butter maker will be producing a blend with fewer crunchy roach fragments than before for select major customers. Not only are any amount of roach fragments still pretty gross, but those of us outside of the DoD don’t even get peanut butter. Instead we get, we always have gotten, a jar of customer surveilling, labor abusing, bookstore smiting, infrastructure crumbling live roaches. I’m told they’re a good source of protein.

It’s easy to play the paranoiac and say that ties between Amazon and the intelligence and defense communities are highly suspect, given the access to private individuals that we’ve already granted Amazon. But my main concern is not for a new sort of corruption. It’s for precisely the kind of corruption that drove much of the last century. Amazon, a company whose managers are made to read a book about ‘disruption’, is just another Lockheed Martin now. A Lockheed that also happens to sell VHS tapes about yoga for the constipated.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.