Is Edward Snowden Right About Amazon?


Sure, it’s easy to dislike the dominant player in your field. They sneeze, and journalists scramble to collect the airborne discharge and analyze it.

However, the power of the big dogs is often left unchecked. We see that in both the public sector and private sector, and sometimes in relationships between the two.

In this article, we will look at the relationship between Amazon Web Services (AWS) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as follows:

  • It Wasn’t Us: Red “Delete” Button
  • Shoddy Intelligence: Cooking the Books on Torture
  • CIA & Amazon: So Happy Together
  • Is Amazon “Morally Irresponsible”?
  • Partnering with a Company You Can Trust

It Wasn’t Us: Red “Delete” Button

The CIA’s publicity director has been having trouble keeping the brand’s sparkling reputation untarnished lately. A couple of leading legislators bolstered opposition to a CIA proposal, which goes something like this: “Hey, we’ve got a great idea to cut fat from the federal government’s data storage: get rid of our emails.”

Julian Hattem reported in The Hill on December 1 that Texas Sen. John Cornyn, “the No. 2 Senate Republican,” had co-written a letter with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont. The two senators crossed the aisles, shook hands, and politely requested that the CIA maybe just not do something as absurd as destroy communications from everyone but the 22 top executives at the espionage agency.

Contrary to the plot line of the pilot for Diff’rent Strokes: The Next Generation, the correspondence did not start out, “Dear Willis, What are you talking about?”

Instead, the legislators wrote to the National Archives and Records Administration advising them not to disappear the messages: “Transparency and accountability are critical to a functioning democracy.” They also argued that trashing the communications would directly impair accountability and make it less possible for American citizens to have access to knowledge about the functionality of the public sector.

Shoddy Intelligence: Cooking the Books on Torture

Okay, so the CIA wants to get rid of its emails. I can’t imagine why that would be. Oh, right, maybe because of that crazy report from the Senate Intelligence Committee that suggested CIA interrogation tactics were not only incredibly inhumane, but also useless. In other words, regardless the human rights issue that some may want to debate (freedom of personal bodily liberty versus freedom of security), the Senate report argued that the United States basically tortured a bunch of people for no reason.

The Chairwoman of the committee, Dianne Feinstein, said that the CIA did not operate in a way that was in line with the core values of the United States.

Not everyone in the intelligence community agrees that the CIA was at fault, though. It’s important to consider the perspective of CIA Director John Brennan, who said, Our review indicates that interrogations of detainees (subject to enhanced interrogation) did produce intelligence that helped thwart attack plans, capture terrorists, and save lives.”

Well, John, sounds like you are looking at different information. Perhaps you might want to share it with the rest of us. Then again, I doubt that a government official would try to mislead us. Oh, and about the JFK assassination…

CIA & Amazon: So Happy Together

Now, it would be unfair for me to suggest that Amazon Web services is going to torture you. However, AWS created a $600 million cloud for the CIA, as reported in The Atlantic Monthly.

The real reason it’s a shocker that the CIA and Amazon have signed a deal is that top-secret operations of the CIA, NSA, and similar organizations are not typically intertwined with private service providers.

Three years ago, as many private firms switched from dedicated servers to the cloud, the intelligence community started to consider the idea of virtualizing its data throughout a private network.

One leader in the intelligence field mentioned in Government Executive that the discussion over a more acceptable cloud system was opinionated and sometimes heated. Nonetheless, “it was easy to see the vision if you laid it all out.”

The CIA’s contract with Amazon was signed in 2013, behind closed doors. IBM and an additional vendor were swept to the side. IBM essentially claimed it was a no-bid contract masquerading as an RFP. When IBM contacted the Government Accountability Office to complain, they were the third company to do so behind AT&T and Microsoft (both of those two in 2012, in response to the strict parameters of the RFP).

Is Amazon “Morally Irresponsible”?

In a story in the Washington Post, which is (humorously enough) owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Edward Snowden (appearing live via streaming video at the Cato Institute on December 13) argued that the Amazon website should be standardly encrypted so that the NSA cannot see the books that people are searching and putting into their shopping carts. He said that Amazon is “morally irresponsible” for not involving encryption until it’s time for the transaction.

Partnering with a Company You Can Trust

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By Kent Roberts