A multinational technology company engaged in e-commerce and cloud computing. Amazon is the main provider of cloud infrastructure and services for databases and case management software used by the US government to surveil immigrant communities.
Amazon is a multinational technology company headquartered in Seattle, Washington, engaged in e-commerce, cloud computing, electronics, and content creation. Through its online retail platform, physical distribution infrastructure, and business-to-business e-commerce tools, it sells a wide range of consumer products and services. Its subsidiary Amazon Web Services (AWS) provides on-demand IT infrastructure services, including cloud-based security, compute power, database storage, and content delivery. As of December 2017 Amazon employed 566,000 full-time and part-time employees, not including temporary and seasonal personnel. In 2017, Amazon reported $177.9 billion in revenue, with sales from AWS totaling $17.4 billion. As of December 2018, Amazon was the third most valuable publicly-traded company by market capitalization.
In response to mounting public, investor and employee pressures to end its relationships with law enforcement agencies and ICE, Amazon’s Teresa Carlson, the vice president of the worldwide public sector of AWS, stated in August 2018 that the company was “unwaveringly in support of our law enforcement, defense, and intelligence community” even if it does not “know everything they’re actually utilizing the tool for.”
Amazon’s Cloud Services Host DHS and ICE Surveillance Databases
Amazon provides IT infrastructure to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through its specialized cloud infrastructure service, AWS GovCloud. Many of the databases and case management tools Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) uses to track, monitor, and deport immigrants are hosted on Amazon’s AWS GovCloud.
IDENT and HART:
The central DHS-wide biometrics database, the Automated Biometrics Identification System (IDENT), is hosted on AWS GovCloud. Designed in 1994, IDENT is used to store, match, process, and share biometric and biographic information. This database has grown into the largest biometric repository in the U.S, containing unique identity records for 230 million people and processing on average 350,000-400,000 transactions per day. It contains biometric information such as fingerprints, palm prints, facial images, and iris scans; biographic information; and an “IDENT watchlist” enumerating persons of interest to DHS. At a minimum, IDENT contains biometric information on travelers entering and exiting the U.S; visa, refugee, and asylum applicants; naturalized citizens; and immigrants who have interfaced with the criminal justice system. DHS agencies, the Department of State, the Department of Defense (DOD), foreign governments, and local, regional, and state law enforcement all contribute data to and query IDENT. IDENT is also interoperable with the FBI’s Next Generation Identification database and the DOD’s Automated Biometric Identification System (ABIS).
IDENT will be replaced with a new biometric database called Homeland Advanced Recognition Technology (HART). HART we also be cloud-based, and will have the capacity to store at least 500 million unique identities and support at least 720,000 daily transactions. Privacy groups have raised concerns around DHS’s lack of transparency regarding the information that will be collected in HART, as well as the dangers of building out a massive database of facial images. As of November 2018, the first phrase of HART will be operational by April 2019.
Similarly, ICE’s primary case management software Investigative Case Management (ICM) is being migrated to AWS GovCloud as part of an upgrading project. This system, ICM, pulls together data from an array of federal and private law enforcement entities to create detailed profiles that are then used to track, monitor, and target immigrants. That data could include a person’s immigration history, family relationships, personal connections, addresses, phone records, biometric traits, and other information.
Two of the upgrading project’s contractors, Booz Allen Hamilton and Prizum (d.b.a IntegrityOne Partners), were contracted through May 2019 to migrate ICM to the Amazon AWS cloud. According to Palantir, the company that developed the ICM system, Amazon receives about $600,000 a month for use of its servers.
Amazon also provides cloud storage for the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS), a database that ICE agents can access through ICM to build cases for prosecution.
Amazon does not supply cloud services directly to DHS or to ICE. These contracts go through third-party service providers, “AWS public sector partners” and “authorized resellers,” that help customers implement and manage a cloud deployment. This makes it harder to track Amazon’s profits from DHS contracts. One AWS partner, Four Points Technology, has received at least $9.1 million between March 2015 and January 2019 for providing cloud services to ICE (see here, here, here, and here)
For the same reason, it is difficult to identify which DHS data systems are stored on the Amazon cloud. The Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) -- which sets security and compliance standards for cloud computing services being provided to the federal government -- suggests that AWS GovCloud is the most commonly used cloud platform at DHS. As of January 2019 only four cloud providers are authorized by FedRAMP to serve DHS and have the “high-level” security accreditation reserved for the kind of sensitive data contained in DHS databases and case management software: AWS GovCloud, Microsoft (Azure Government), Oracle (Government Cloud-Common Controls), and General Dynamics (CSRA/ARC-P Cloud). Of these, Amazon has by far the most authorizations with 110, compared to 26 for Microsoft, 16 for General Dynamics, and 11 for Oracle.
Offering Facial Recognition Software to ICE
In the summer of 2018, Amazon pitched its facial recognition software called Rekognition to ICE. Rekognition can scan and identify objects, scenes, activities, people, paths, and text in real-time using live video feeds. Using facial recognition and facial analysis technology, it can identify people in a crowd by pulling facial IDs from a single video frame, storing them for later use, and cross-referencing them against databases. Amazon currently sells the software to local law enforcement agencies, including the Orlando Police Department and the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon. The ACLU has charged that Rekognition can be misused by law enforcement for mass surveillance of undocumented immigrants as well as protestors and activists. In July 2018, the ACLU used Amazon’s facial recognition software Rekognition to run every member of Congress through a mugshot database. Rekognition yielded 28 false matches, with a disproportionate error rate for African Americans. As of December 2018, public procurement data does not show any ICE contracts with Amazon for facial recognition services.