Amazon snoops on US immigrants

Amazon's warehouse workers,  including various Jewish groups, are demanding that Amazon Web Service's (AWS) cut ties with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and data company Palantir Technologies.

Background 

Amazon metamorphosed from a bookseller in 1994 and expanded into the world's most significant e-commerce market place. Consumers rely on its full suite of electronic devices which includes a digital assistant to carry out daily tasks to the home security system.

Amazon's server business hosts a third of the world's cloud-based data. It became a brick-and-mortar retailer with its $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods, its physical bookstores, and its foray into cashier-less convenience stores. Much of Amazon's reinvestment goes into real innovation. In July 2019, Amazon published 49 new patents, including one that would let drones communicate with each other in the air.

In August 2019, the Pentagon put a hold a $10 billion contract after President Trump cited favouritism toward Amazon for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI). JEDI is an ambitious military venture where military data will be held in the Cloud instead of being stored on smaller servers across different departments within the Pentagon.

Analysis                                                         

As the Trump administration continues to crack down on immigration, Amazon has come under fire for their collaboration with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Homeland Security.  Anti – ICE protesters rallied outside the Amazon retail store to draw attention to AWS's contracts with ICE and Palantir technologies, which provide the data used in immigration raids and other enforcement activities. 

Palantir, the CIA-backed data-mining firm co-founded by Peter Thiel, an ally of President Donald Trump, which designed the Investigative Case Management System (ICM) – is facing criticism. The ICM is a critical component of deportation operations. The National Immigration Project report commissioned by activists organizations found that the algorithms powering ICM were migrated to Amazon Web Services that provided the backbone infrastructure for the federal government programs. Palantir pays Amazon approximately $600,000 a month for the use of its servers. In order for Palantir to secure its contract with the government, ICM had to be hosted on a federally authorized cloud service. 

An online government database shows that Amazon holds the largest share of 22% of federal authorizations under the FedRAMP program, which verifies that cloud providers have the necessary security requirements to process, store, and transmit government data. More importantly, Amazon holds 62% of the highest-level authorizations, usually needed to handle data for law enforcement systems.

DHS databases are also hosted by Amazon Web Services and it helps the department and its agencies to track and arrest immigrants. AWS is also in discussions to host DHS' biometric databases that store more extensive data, including eye color, tattoos and other identifiers. Last year, the employees of  Amazon wrote a letter to their CEO Jeff Bezos requesting him to stop selling the company's Rekognition facial recognition to law enforcement.

Undocumented immigrants will be arrested by the ICE, which is set to begin nation-wide raids on Amazon's Prime Day. The company earned more than $4bn in the yearly sale in 2018 on Prime Day. Protestors are planning to slash the profit by encouraging workers to continue the strike and customers to avoid shopping. "Amazon's role in hurting immigrant families and asylum seekers is just one of the ways it's hurting American communities," said Maritza Silva-Farrell, executive director of Align. "It's only able to commit these atrocities because it's a monopoly with unlimited resources and immense power. We can't afford to wait around for corporate empires like that to grow a conscience."

In addition to the protests, protesters heckled keynote address of Amazon's chief technology officer, Werner Vogel, by playing audio of crying immigrant children in detention. Amazon's grocery chain, Whole Foods employees say they will continue to combat the company by leaking information and attempting to undermine policies and business dealings that lead to the deportation of undocumented people and other rights abuses. 

Jewish community activists took part in demonstrations in around 60 locations across the United States, from Philadelphia to Los Angeles against Trump's anti-immigrant agenda on Tisha B'Av, a Jewish day of mourning.

Counterpoint 

The US government is preparing to investigate whether technology companies such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google are misusing their massive market power. The companies have faced a backlash in the US and across the world, which has intensified due to the growing concerns among competitors, lawmakers and consumer groups that the firms have too much power and are harming users and business rivals.

Assessment 

  • Business models for tech companies are based on data monetization, and they are turning into surveillance capitalists. Tech companies use some of the consumer data for service improvement, and the remaining is declared as proprietary behavioural surplus which is later sent to advanced manufacturing processes known as 'machine intelligence'. 
  • Companies providing better and more comprehensive data make higher profits while citizens are confined in an intertwined process of economic extraction and relying on these companies for personal necessities such as logistics, social interaction, work, education, healthcare, access to products which works like the supply chain operation for surveillance capitalism. 
  • The merger of surveillance and capitalism has led to a division in the societies, separating citizens into the ‘watchers’ and the ‘watched’. This can undermine democracy because the asymmetry of knowledge translates into an imbalance of power. 
  • There is a degree of oversight in most democratic societies for state surveillance, but there is no regulatory oversight of its privatized counterpart. 
  • Amazon's previous acquisitions have all been for instant profit, disregarding social corporate responsibilities. 

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Image Courtesy: flickr.com

 

 

 

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