In Part 1 of our investigative series on Surveillance Capitalism, MPN spoke to author Yasha Levine and Monthly Review editor John Bellamy Foster about the rise of the Amazon.com empire and its fusion with the U.S. state apparatus.
In our next installments, we will continue exploring the rise of Surveillance Capitalism and the implications of Amazon-fueled spying technology, both in the workplace and in U.S. city streets.
"Capitalism is a system that seeks to transgress all boundaries in its production and sale of commodities, commodifying everything in existence, which today, in the age of monopoly-finance capital and surveillance capitalism, means intruding into every aspect of existence," John Bellamy Foster told MPN.
This year may go down in history as a turning-point when the world finally woke up to the dark side of the ubiquitous presence of popular Silicon Valley companies in our daily lives. One can only hope so, at least.
From Amazon to Facebook, Apple, Google, Microsoft and PayPal – among others – revelations poured out confirming the ongoing abuse of user data by monopolistic corporations, as well as their growing role as vendors of surveillance technology to the U.S. police state, military, and migrant detention agencies.
In March, the lid was blown off of the violation of user data on Facebook, with Cambridge Analytica mining user information for the purpose of providing millions of detailed "psychological profiles" to the Trump campaign, among others. Scarcely two weeks later, the Google campus was in an uproar over the development of its "Project Maven," which was building an AI-fueled platform to vastly upgrade the automatic targeting abilities of the U.S. military's global drone fleet. Faced with public outrage and internal dissent, the company pulled out of bidding to renew its Pentagon contract, which ends next year.
Now, employees and shareholders of Amazon.com – the world's largest online marketer and cloud-computing provider – are demanding that chief executive Jeff Bezos halt the sale of its facial recognition or Amazon Web Services (AWS) Rekognition service to law enforcement agencies across the U.S., including to the Department of Homeland Security – Immigration and Customs Enforcement (DHS-ICE).
"As ethically concerned Amazonians, we demand a choice in what we build, and a say in how it is used," the letter said. "We learn from history, and we understand how IBM's systems were employed in the 1940s to help Hitler.
"IBM did not take responsibility then, and by the time their role was understood, it was too late," it continued, referring to collusion with the operation of Nazi extermination camps during the Second World War. "We will not let that happen again. The time to act is now."
Unveiled in November 2016 as a part of the AWS cloud suite, Rekognition analyzes images and video footage to recognize objects while providing analytics to users. It also lets clients "identify people of interest against a collection of millions of faces in near real-time, enabling use cases such as timely and accurate crime prevention," according to promotional material. Law enforcement agencies like the Washington County Sheriff's Department pay as little as $6 to $12 a month for access to the platform, giving deputies the ability to scan its mugshot database against real-time footage.
Amazon employees cited a report from the ACLU that notes that AWS Rekognition "raises profound civil liberties and civil rights concerns" owing to its "capacity for abuse." Its uses could include monitoring protest activity, as well as the possibility that ICE could employ the technology to continuously track immigrants and advance its "zero tolerance" policy of detaining migrant families and children at the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the letter distributed on email list "we-won't-build-it," Amazon employees lay out their opposition to their employer's collusion with the police and the DHS-ICE migrant-capture and mass-incarceration regime:
We don't have to wait to find out how these technologies will be used. We already know that in the midst of historic militarization of police, renewed targeting of Black activists, and the growth of a federal deportation force currently engaged in human rights abuses — this will be another powerful tool for the surveillance state, and ultimately serve to harm the most marginalized."
The furor surrounding AWS Rekognition is hardly a revelation to journalist Yasha Levine. Instead, as is the case with Google and other flagship firms' work for Washington, it's just another chapter in Silicon Valley's long-time integration into the repressive state apparatus.
"This isn't so much a big step to some 'Surveillance Apocalypse,' it's just an indication of where we've been for a long time," Levine told MintPress News.