Megalomaniacal internet retailer Amazon began as an online seller of books—as CEO Jeff Bezos once explained it to a horrified Kansas City bookseller—because it allowed the company to gather data on affluent, educated shoppers. Their latest customer is the entire intelligence apparatus of your democracy. Checkmate!
News of this $600 million contract with the CIA broke over a year ago, burbling ominously to the surface last August, when Bezos just up and decided he'd buy the Washington Post for a bargain bin $250 million. (At a net worth of $32.8 billion—placing him not simply in the .01 percent, but in the nation's coveted 1.0e-5 percent—this purchase was all so much gas station Snickers® to Jeff Bezos.)
But this summer, the Airborne Toxic Event arrives. The CIA's private Amazon Web Services cloud—a dark, humming conflict of interest, brand new to American journalism, and shielded from the public behind a wall of National Security—becomes operational.
The fact that the cloud's $600 million budget will be parceled out from the CIA kitty over the next ten years, in some ways, confuses the issue. All 17 agencies that comprise the U.S. intelligence community will be making use of Amazon's cloud, including, selected at random, the NSA, the DEA, the Department of the Treasury, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and Coast Guard Intelligence—which you'd think you would have heard of by now. Like: there should definitely already be a CBS procedural or at least a USA Network original series about Coast Guard intelligence agents, given how much old people love boats and mysteries.
This may come as a shock, but with an annual revenue of $74.5 billion in 2013, Amazon actually dwarfs the CIA whose fiscal year 2013 budget (as disclosed by spy kid Edward Snowden) was a mere $14.7 billion. Amazon was larger that year than the entire government budget for non-military intelligence by more than $20 billion. It is far-and-away the more powerful actor in this deal: the very reason that the CIA contracted them in the first place, to "buy innovation" in the words of Atlantic Media's execrable online magazine Government Executive and "catch up to the commercial cycle."
Jeff Bezos, who originally wanted to call his company relentless.com, lords over Amazon with "ice water running through his veins" according to Bloomberg Businessweek reporter Brad Stone. "He's ruthless. He identifies competitors and he can crush them"—always managing to lead with his famously insane, bellowing laugh, (compiled brilliantly by BBC Two in the montage at left). Arguably, the CIA's ten-year partnership with Amazon will turn out to be the most Faustian bargain the agency has made since Allen Dulles brought in Reinhard Gehlen's network of Nazi spies after WWII.
When Amazon decided to initiate a program of exerting pressure on vulnerable book publishers for better shipping terms and higher promotional fees, it was known internally as the Gazelle Project after Bezos decreed "that Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a cheetah would pursue a sickly gazelle." As Amazon's in-house book critics and literary bloggers were forced to compete for their very survival against the algorithms of a new "personalization team", their rivals posted a sign that simply read "PEOPLE FORGET THAT JOHN HENRY DIED IN THE END."
In Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, the conditions at one of Amazon's main warehouses and distribution hubs was so bad in the scorching summer heat of 2011 that the company hired Cetronia Ambulance Corps to have ambulances and paramedics on stand-by. An emergency room doctor at Lehigh Valley Hospital-Cedar Crest reported Amazon to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) after having had enough of treating their employees for heat-related injuries. Air conditioning did not arrive at the warehouse until it also started to store and ship groceries.
And beside these known inhumanities lays an unmapped territory shrouded in corporate secrecy. Amazon is infamous for routinely showing publishers, shareholders and clients numberless charts and graphs and refusing to disclose even basic things like their employment numbers or Kindle sales figures. The floor in their Seattle headquarters devoted to the Kindle is known as Area 51, because it is forbidden to anyone not working on the project. They've hired former NSA employees and have been accused of rerouting shipments to aid the agency's surveillance programs.
An outgrowth of this rapaciousness and secrecy for Amazon has been historically a business strategy of forward-thinking ulterior motives, nested like Russian dolls. Publishers begrudgingly accepted when Amazon wanted to scan their titles for its new "Search Inside This Book" feature only to discover later the lengthy head start they had given the company, once it began moving into e-readers and digital publishing.
There's almost assuredly a long view with Amazon's CIA data center, too terrible to contemplate, ideas pinging around, brainstorming sessions on how best to leverage a dense mass of black op debriefs and decrypting moments of human intimacy; whole communities reduced to metadata-hyperlinked dossiers; transcripts of interrogations that decent people would call torture; dark truths and useless junk all hanging shapeless in a steady breeze of electrons behind Langley's firewall. (It will certainly be an advantage in Amazon's Cloud War against Google.)
To imagine Amazon's dark black breathing machine communicating regularly with the NSA's yottabyte data center outside Bluffdale, extracting and calcifying this vast containment facility of our past lives, is to cry out in anguish over a grim new understanding of what it truly means to be governed.
It is hard to state the urgency of this problem. There will be no Upworthy headline too hyperbolic. Like climate change, the anxieties it produces are not of the kind provided for by instinct.
Martial law and internment camps are not the inherent dangers here. This control will penetrate, seep, reveal itself in the birthing of twee youth movements no more radical than lemonade stands; cultural critics addressing only the pettiest grievances of consumer choice; a, fluid, oppressive, and soul-worrying continuity between high school, state, and federal elections. Cheesy crap, basically. A national conversation that forever tastes like a Whopper Jr. exiting your mouth.
Remember that this is the company that paid the author of The 4-Hour Workweek to write a cookbook; a company founded by a man who once said that Simon & Garfunkel's "America" was his favorite Beatles song.
An example should be made of Amazon like no American company since the corporate trusts of the Gilded Age. It should be hounded tirelessly for any and every legal infraction that it is surely committing. With the healthy funding and broad latitude of Elliot Ness and the Untouchables, the IRS, OSHA, the FTC, the SEC, every relevant government body, should descend on Amazon's offices, labs and "fulfillment centers" like they were Prohibition-era speakeasies, interrogating employees and handcuffing managers.
[photo via AP; GIF created via BBC Two footage]