See update at end of story.
In recent months residents of largely liberal Seattle have stood up in defense of their civil liberties. They forced the Seattle Police Department to abandon the planned use of drones for surveillance, and kicked up a fuss about a plan to ring the Port of Seattle with cameras that might have the ability to peer into nearby homes. I certainly have heard plenty of local outrage in the wake of the revelations by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden about massive email and phone snooping.
Last year, I wrote about the bizarre mystery surrounding the precise Seattle location of Amazon.com-owned Internet Movie Database. “As someone New To Seattle, I simply don’t see the city as any big den of big secrets,” I opined then.
But now I am rethinking things.
One big reason is a story this week in The Seattle Times that Amazon.com is in court trying as secretly as it can to fight IBM and hold onto the award of a $600 million contract to build a secure Web infrastructure for the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA is no stranger when it comes to overreaching snooping (and waterboarding torture, but that’s another issue). I have to think the CIA wouldn’t even dream of considering a data services vendor for a big, sensitive contract like that unless that vendor had a proven record of playing ball when it came to granting access to any data sister federal agencies wanted. And boy, the NSA is definitely a sister agency of the CIA.
Another big reason: Thanks to Snowden, we know that Seattle-area-based Microsoft allowed the NSA big liberties with its Outlook and Skype communication systems for consumers. Like other Big Data–Verizon, Google, AOL, AT&T, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo–the locals pretty much rolled over when presented directly or indirectly with governmental demands for access to information, demands that in my judgment sometimes violated the U.S. Constitution. (Indeed, the sweep of the data grabbed is so disproportionate that it’s hard for me to escape the conclusion the Federal Government isn’t so much protecting its citizens from foreign threats as it is protecting itself from its domestic citizens.)
I can’t see how the feds would have ignored Amazon, the world’s largest Internet-based seller. I can just imagine all kinds of interesting stuff that could be gleaned from pawing through its customer records.Especially since the company’s Amazon Web Services, the unit dealing with the CIA, contracts with hundreds of other companies of all kinds as it handles data going to and from the cloud.
AWS itself is pretty secretive, reflecting the parent company’s m.o. In Amazon’s latest annual filing with federal securities regulators, there’s exactly one sentence describing AWS: It “provides access to technology infrastructure that enables virtually any type of business.” I’ve seen estimates AWS is a billion-dollar business all by itself.
A fair number of the Amazon.com people I have met in Seattle are on the IT side (as opposed to, say, employees in overheated warehouses). Some have hinted vaguely they work on stuff they can’t talk about. One can only wonder, but I don’t think they all are helping to sell books.
Of course, this is largely sheer speculation by me, and I invite anyone to chime in below with comments, clarifications, confirmations or denials. But if I am even slightly correct, God help the reporters on the soon-to-be-owned-by Amazon-boss-Jeff-Bezos Washington Post the next time they get into a dust-up with the feds over secret documents.
Talking the talk without walking the walk strikes me as something of a grand Seattle tradition. Seattleites often complain about the 9.5% sales tax–the highest among big cities. But they ignore the irony that Amazon rose to business prominence by tax evasion, namely, allowing out-of-state customers to avoid their own state’s levy. I have never lived in a city that professes itself as green as Seattle–nor have I lived in a place that seems to have so high a percentage of gas-guzzling SUVs.
Here’s a delicious scenario. It may be too late for this year, but suppose Snowden is nominated for and wins the Nobel Peace Prize. That would put one Nobel laureate–President Obama–in the uncomfortable position of seeking the arrest of another laureate. That’s Third World dictator stuff, but a situation that also might really put in a quandary Seattle voters who went for Obama in 2012 by a whopping 2-to-1 margin.
Meanwhile, I’m thinking of nominating some folks in Seattle for the non-existent Claude Rains Award. It’s named for the actor playing the police chief in the classic 1942 movie Casablanca who memorably said, “I’m shocked–shocked!–to find that gambling is going on in here” as he collected his winnings. Maybe he meant snooping.
UPDATE ON 9/5/2013: Concerning a meeting the day before between Bezos and Washington Post staffers, The New York Times reported, “Toward the end of the session, Mr. Bezos addressed more difficult questions like the possible conflict of interest between The Post and Amazon’s contract for computer work with the Central Intelligence Agency. One employee, who attended the session but did not feel comfortable speaking on the record about his future owner, said that while Mr. Bezos ‘danced around’ his answer, he added that he expected The Post to aggressively cover this relationship.”