Re-Reading Tim Bray’s Amazon Resignation Letter


Note: A previous version of this report identified Tim Bray as THE rather than A Vice President. We welcome his response.
This week, a Vice President and Distinguished Engineer named Tim Bray of Amazon Web Services (AWS) publicly resigned his position in response to the company’s retaliation against whistle blowers organizing for safer warehouse conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. His published explanation has some admirable qualities, even if I profess its exhibition seems a tad self-serving and a wonderful example of liberal virtue signaling.

Some might say I am being too harsh.

But anyone following Washington Babylon‘s reporting on Amazon in the past year would understand that, up until this week, Tim Bray was a Vice President at AWS, which provides data collection, storage, and computer program operations for the vile Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.

Video produced by Tabriz Ghazi

Last summer, as a new round of ICE raids were announced, I spoke with Barrett Brown, whose tech and computing journalism was ahead of the curve by elaborating upon how mass bulk data compilation was creating an all-encompassing, no-exceptions surveillance system enveloping us all. It was made clear at that time that Amazon Web Services and Palantir, owned by Peter Thiel, were working in collaboration with ICE to provide a geo-location capacity that would make it easier to locate and detain the undocumented.

AS: We have seen in the past week news about a forthcoming series of ICE raids this summer. We have this report from Empower LLC titled Who’s Behind ICE? that says “A handful of huge corporations, like Amazon Web Services and Palantir, have built a ‘revolving door’ to develop and entrench Silicon Valley’s role in fueling the incarceration and deportation regime.” Your thoughts?

BB: So this is exactly what concerned us from the start.

Palantir deals in information in an age when information is a driving force behind everything. It does this in a way that is of tremendous value to the modern surveillance state.

And then here we are learning (as we suspected) that Palantir has no problem engaging in practices that most Americans find horrendous. Americans as a whole recognize that the family separation policy is horrendous and here they are, happily participating in it. That should not be a surprise considering one of their spin-off companies, Anduril, is primarily in the business of developing AI for drones to catch immigrants.

This is just a small part of what they are going to end up doing over time when you have your fingers in predictive policing in New Orleans, electioneering with Archimedes, UN food programs, and catching immigrants. And there’s no one even at the UN saying ‘wait, this is the same company that has been caught doing this and this and this.’

AS: This report continues:

ICE is preparing to use tech for mass deportation at an unprecedented scale that could make “Sanctuary” city- and state-level protections obsolete… ICE wants to organize mass personal information it buys from private vendors, such as license plate information; collect intimate biometric information in mass quantities, such as fingerprints, iris scans, facial recognition software; buy the “cloud” space to store the data and hire people to analyze the mass data information – all for surveilling, arresting and deporting immigrants. These programs have enormous implications for protective policies in cities and states by making the separation of information impossible, granting full access to Trump’s federal police force. Amazon and Palantir as two companies that are at the forefront of these developments, providing the collection, storage, and management of the vast amount of information required by ICE to increase its reach to the levels promised by the Trump administration. Both companies have enabled DHS to apply new technologies and expand its data-sharing capabilities to undermine and get around any local protections that were hard-fought and won by immigrant rights organizers. This interoperability has effectively expanded the reach of immigration enforcement by rendering detentions and deportations more likely to occur… Palantir is building ICE’s case management software — tech that allows immigration agents to scour regional, local, state, and federal databases across the country, build profiles of immigrants and their friends and family based on both private and public information, and use those profiles to surveil, track, and ultimately deport immigrants.

Your thoughts?

BB: It’s hard to frighten me these days but that’s the kind of thing that does.

The frightening aspect is that Thiel, people in this administration, and people behind the Republican Party, they know that, since they have the means of effectively doing this, they have little to worry about in terms of opposition.

They’ve seen what “the resistance” is and how it materialized. It’s hashtags.

They know that, unless there is some sort of insurgency, there is nothing to prevent this.

I hope that when this happens that it at least shocks Americans enough that doesn’t dissipate as quickly as the Trump election shock did.

It should be opposed, it will be to the extent that it is exposed to the public, but regardless, that should be the wake-up call that this is not the ’90s anymore [in terms of computing and the internet]. The norms that we are used to are gone.

And with climate change on the horizon, this is a preview of what this citizenry is not prepared for.

And so it was only now, more than a year after the original reporting by immigration advocacy groups about Amazon Web Services collaboration with ICE, that Tim Bray decided to quit?

Give me a break!

Update: Following publication, readers have questioned whether Bray should be held responsible for Amazon’s collaboration with ICE. Further clarification is offered by the press release for the October 2018 report by immigration activists:

Forensic Logic, the maker of COPLINK, a program used by over 5,100 law enforcement agencies across the country and hosted on Amazon Web Services (AWS), was designed to be compatible with federal immigration databases. COPLINK contains diverse information on individuals, organizations, and vehicles, and will allow ICE unprecedented access to information about employers, “associates,” and hangout spots.

Amazon at the Top of the
“Cloud Industrial Complex”

Amazon has moved from being the one-stop shop for consumers of every kind to the biggest broker of cloud storage space on the planet, through Amazon Web Services. AWS is the primary cloud space where these data-sharing systems live.  AWS serves as the key contractor in DHS’ migration of the agency’s $6.8 billion information technology (IT) portfolio to the cloud. Amazon, now the wealthiest company on the planet, has more federal authorizations to maintain government data from a variety of government agencies than any other tech company — 204 authorizations, compared to Microsoft’s 150, Salesforce’s 31, and Google’s 27. It has made wide use of these authorizations, serving as DHS’s database for immigration case management systems and biometric data for 230 million unique identities — mostly fingerprint records, alongside 36.5 million face records and 2.8 million irises.

The cloud plays a critical role in the DHS immigration enforcement system. Most key data systems supporting immigration enforcement at DHS are either hosted on commercial cloud providers or being migrated to them. This facilitates massive info-sharing with local, state, and other federal law enforcement agencies, as well as the bilateral info-sharing agreements with countries such as Mexico. The government’s move towards cloud services has been the result of the “cloud industrial complex”— a public-private partnership among industry lobbyists, tech executives, key federal legislators, and tech executives-turned-government officials.

DHS emerged as a potential treasure trove for Silicon Valley cloud providers in late 2010, when then-Federal Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra instituted a “Cloud First” policy. The policy encouraged the private contracting of $20 billion in cloud services across the federal government and projected DHS, specifically, as the largest potential client for cloud service acquisition, at over $2.4 billion.

The federal government’s “Cloud First” policy was an important step in constructing what has become a “revolving door” for cloud service providers at the highest levels of government. Congress members involved in a public-private partnership that helped codify the Federal CIO’s power in IT acquisition (a role filled by former or future tech executives) have received over $250,000 in contributions from Amazon and other tech companies that then gained these cloud computing contracts.

Within the next couple of years, the entirety of DHS’s IT portfolio — full of personally-identifiable data — will live on the cloud. DHS has already granted multi-million dollar cloud contracts to Adobe, Amazon, IBM, Oracle, Salesforce, Zoom, and other Silicon Valley companies. Amazon will likely continue to be the primary provider, which means it is the ultimate keeper of the data that enables detentions and deportations.

Elsewhere they write:

Amazon isn’t the only tech company doing this, but it has the largest role. Through intense lobbying of policymakers and law enforcement officials, Amazon and Palantir have secured a role as the backbone for the federal government’s immigration and law enforcement dragnet.

This is why we’re targeting Amazon

It’s time to hold Amazon accountable for its outsized share in building the deportation machine, and demand that they stop. It won’t be easy — Amazon makes billions from these contracts. But the company also depends on consumers — including millions of Latinx people — and has to worry about protecting its brand.

There is simply no way that a Vice President of the division that was cited for these egregious practices would have been oblivious about the mainstream media coverage given this report, let alone the contract his division has with ICE. Here is just a sampling of the headlines in mainstream media venues that covered the release of the report:

What else does one require?

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