News Analysis

Amazon’s Underbelly 4.0: Consumer Data Harvesting Has Gone Too Far

Originally published on

This is Part 4 in a series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first partsecond part and third part.

Amazon has formed an uncomfortable, yet formidable, relationship with the government by creating surveillance technology, providing cloud storage for the government, and using its excess wealth to inordinately influence politics and policy.

On top of this, the company strives to intimately understand its customers by harvesting consumer data at unprecedented levels – ironically, without the consent or the acknowledgement of its customers.

One of Amazon’s newest privacy-shattering fetishes is developing artificial intelligence in order to enhance the shopping experience for its customers.

Amazon has developed its own search engine, A9, in order to expedite this endeavor. Like it or not, if you’ve done a search on Amazon then you’ve used the search engine. A9 claims to create a simple and convenient shopping experience for its customers.

It uses data from customers’ previous purchases and offers suggestions when users enter their queries. A9 also uses ranking algorithms to present the most relevant results to the user. It can remember everything that you’ve ever searched for, and it has the right to share that information with its retail sector. The A9 website proudly states:

“Our work starts long before a customer types a query. We’ve been analyzing data, observing past traffic patterns, and indexing the text describing every product in our catalog before the customer has even decided to search. As soon as we see the first keystroke, we’re ready with instant suggestions and a comprehensive set of search results.”

A9 is looking to expand its search capabilities to include visual searches. Amazon bought out a small startup called Snaptell to embark on its visual search journey. The visual search works by “overlaying relevant information over camera-phone views of the world around [our customers].” In other words, it allows customers to take pictures of CDs, DVDs, or video games and the app will identify the product and provide ratings and pricing information.

Amazon also acquired the website Goodreads in 2013. Amazon regularly reviews a customer’s highlighted words and notes in order to figure out what interests them. The company then sends suggestions to the person’s Kindle for e-book recommendations. It provides the same function when items are added to their cart using a collaborative filtering engine (CFE).

Even more troubling, in a letter to shareholders in 2017, CEO Jeff Bezos describes how Amazon Web Services (AWS) clients would potentially have access to these AI learning frameworks.

Many data collection schemes like clickstream analytics, data warehousing, recommendation engines, and fraud detection are all done through cloud-computing. Developers from other companies that do business with Amazon may have the ability to use the same deep-learning tracking software because of their adoption of AWS.

The companies already using AWS run the gamut, from McDonald’s, Netflix, Adobe and Capital One to GE and Pinterest. All of these companies have a vested interest in tracking the habits of their customers and will likely, and gladly, pounce on the opportunity.

Amazon candidly talks about its approach to gathering information about its customers. In fact, the company even compare its collection of information to a partner who learns more about you as your relationship grows. Of course, in this case it’s a one-way interaction: You don’t get to learn anything about how Amazon operates.

In the letter, Bezos candidly referenced the underbelly to which this series has referred: “Much of what we do with machine learning happens beneath the surface. Machine learning drives our algorithms for demand forecasting, product search ranking, product and deals recommendations, merchandising placements, fraud detection, translations, and more.”

“Though less visible,” he continued, “much of the impact of machine learning will be of this type – quietly but meaningfully improving core operations.” The type of AI to which he’s referring is focused on human behavior and habit.

That’s right: much of what they do with machine learning happens beneath the surface, so the general public has no idea of the company’s newest initiatives to expand its power.

If A9 and its counterparts represent such a glorious, reputable and helpful piece of technology, and if its intentions are truly noble and pure, then why are the majority of Amazon customers blissfully unaware of its existence? Amazon continues to be opaque about its involvement in our government and in our lives: in its sale of facial recognition technology to our government, in its supply of clandestine cloud service to national security agencies and local municipalities, in its manipulation of our political process, and our private data as well. Amazon should at least make its intentions and its actions transparent to its customers.

Amazon has access to a troubling amount of industry information: lucrative private contracts with local governments; private consumer data; financial resources to lobby political leaders; business deals to sell surveillance technology; and a massive fortune and wealth to boot. Amazon remains one of the most powerful and influential companies on Earth, and Jeff Bezos the richest man in history. He and the company have the ability and influence to change our world for the better. But instead this empire continues to consolidate power and wealth for itself.

Amazon’s continued occult actions must be brought to light so that a true examination of its power can continue.

Decision points: compassion or hate?

The coronavirus is a not only a biological virus. It is a cultural virus. The virus is very deft at exposing our culture’s and our society’s grave shortcomings. It is causing much hardship, distress, and suffering, and in its wake, it is putting the rotting infrastructure of a decaying empire on full display.

We spend approximately 20% of our GDP on health care, but fail to even provide enough ventilators to our fellow, infected Americans. Our nurses are posting videos of themselves crying on live TV because they can get the appropriate amount of PPE. Jeff Bezos’ net worth skyrockets by a grotesque $24 billion in a couple of weeks, while Amazon will not provide adequate protection to its warehouse workers, and in fact will fire organizers trying to bring attention to that fact. Even more frightening, Whole Foods (owned by Bezos) is using a heat map to track employees to detect unionization activity. Trump’s ex-lawyer Michael Cohen gets to leave prison because of the COVID-19 threat, while many non-violent individuals in jail, many of them not even yet on trial, cannot be released from prison. Our leaders, instead of appropriately warning the American public of the dangers of COVID-19, sold stock while they were privately informed about the severity of the virus.

It is particularly disgusting that world’s rich continues to get lavishly richer, while a record number of 22 million Americans have applied for unemployment in a couple of weeks. That’s right. While most people are struggling to make ends meet, while many are losing their shitty jobs (and, along with it, their access to health care), and not even to able to pay their rent, the net worth of world’s top 10 billionaires net worth increased by a shocking $51 billion dollars. That’s with a b.

Meanwhile, our government is completely incapable of providing even the most basic needs to our citizens. Our callous and feckless leaders are staggeringly out of touch with the daily lives of even a moderately-affluent American. Steven Minuchin, the Treasury Secretary, recently suggested that Americans can live off $1,200 for 10 weeks. Nancy Pelosi, whose net worth is $16 million, recently talked about eating ice cream in front of expensive kitchen appliances, meanwhile Americans are forced to line up their cars for food distribution.

The virus is causing us to question a variety of standards of practice in our country. Why are people held in prison just because they can’t pay bail and they haven’t even gone to trial yet? Why are innocent children held in inhumane, unsanitary cages while they await deportation? How is it that we spend way more per capita for health care over any other developed country and we still can’t test everyone in the United States for COVID-19? Why is it that rich and famous people like Tom Hanks, Idris Elba, and NBA stars can get immediate testing and treatment, but the average, unsuspecting American is going to have to pay a deductible first? Don’t grocery store clerks and delivery drivers, who in the matter of weeks went from “low-skill labor” to “heroes who deserve hazard pay,” deserve a decent, living wage as well? Do we really need to stuff kids in a cement box for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week? Do we really need to keep voting for the “lesser of two evils” every election year?

Parents and guardians are now wondering: should teachers get paid more for dealing with our kids all day, all the time? Impostors like Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz are being exposed for the frauds they are. Once revered media figures, like Ellen DeGeneres, are being exposed for the selfish and tone-deaf pricks they are.

The virus is holding up a mirror, and the image in the reflection is fucking disgusting. Many people are finally willing to accept it. Unfortunately, many also are not. It is certainly dark times. But, this is our opportunity to step up and create something that actually works for the everyday American.

In response to this cultural virus, our culture is producing antibodies – antibodies that are activating our immune system and igniting an inflammatory response. This inflammatory response will manifest into populist movements. We are seeing the tinder for this: the now disenfranchised Bernie voters (which represent the majority of under 40, Latino, Arab, and young African-Americans); the worker’s strikes at Whole Foods, Amazon, Instacart, and hospitals; staggering levels of unemployment; and rent strikes. While all of this is going on, our government is unable, or unwilling, to respond rationally or urgently. Let us not forget about the smoldering ashes of the Occupy Wall Street and continuing efforts of the Poor People’s Campaign and Black Lives Matter movements. Those are just a few of the signs.

These populist movements can manifest in mainly two ways – good or bad. It might seem juvenile and reductionist to frame it in such simple terms. But I believe this is where we are truly at.

The bad will occur if the populist movement is centered on hate and ignorance (against Muslims and undocumented immigrants, e.g.) We see examples of this already. Groups of armed, white men with Confederate flags are gathering outside of the Michigan state capitol chanting “Lock her up” for simply enforcing some guidelines to keep the public safe. Not surprisingly, it has recently been discovered that these groups are funded by a political group that is indeed heavily funded by Betsy DeVos (Michgan Freedom Fund, Michigan Conservative Coalition). Trump is continuing the ignite that civil unrest by tweeting “Liberate [name of state]” for almost all of the states in the U.S.  There are now protests in Wisconsin, Texas, and Virginia, among others. His docile and vacuous sycophants are obsequiously parroting an even more docile and vacuous leader. Dumb idiots taking orders from a hateful, dumb, idiot leader. Sound familiar?

On the flip side, the good will happen if the movement is centered on compassion and love. A good populist movement will be non-violent and will focus on the issues. A true and honest movement will question the unequal institutions in our society and propose compassionate and rational solutions to our country’s problems and correctly identify the causes. We see examples of this as well. There was already a lot of tinder for this from the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. Now, the flames have been stoked when a progressive candidate like Sanders (who is really a moderate in most countries but considered a radical in our fucked up political landscape), the political manifestation of those two populist movements, has now been denied the nomination two election years in a row (for a variety of reasons). Progressive voices and ideas are continually maligned in cable news media and on Twitter. The entire agenda of the Sanders movement was ostracized by a fabricated “Bernie bro” myth.

At this point, we can go either way. And unfortunately, given our president’s actions and his power, I would place money on the “bad” at this point. But things these days can turn around quickly. There are also plenty of signs to place your money on the “good.”

I know. I’m like you. I don’t want to rock the boat. I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Many of us want to live a simple life: go to a job that makes us moderately happy, or at least is only marginally depressing; forge meaningful relationships with friends, significant others, and family; treat others with the respect that they dish out; and contribute in some meaningful way to the environment around you.

The splinter in that cute, little proverbial puppy paw is that there is an elite cadre of people whose motives are much more sinister and domineering. I’m talking about the 1% of the country that owns as much wealth as the entire middle class. I’m talking about assholes like Richard Branson who owns his own island but claims he needs government money to keep his business afloat.

The more enduring problem: they have all the power. Richard Branson will most likely get what he wants.

The scales are tipped wildly in their favor. The fact of the matter is: if their power is left unfettered, they will kill us. They truly have no end to their greed. In the middle of a pandemic, the government (that they control) shelled out $1,200 bread crumbs to the people, while the largest corporations got a $500 billion dollar bailout. Even more menacing is that their addiction to fossil fuels will cook our Earth to a level on par with Venus.

Before we can enjoy our simple lives and create meaningful communities and lives with our loved ones, we must first rein in the oligarchic elite trying to take that simple future away from us. Their looting has gone largely unnoticed by the relatively opulent. But trust me, the population will continue to get squeezed for less and less and less.

I follow the lead of Chris Hedges on the solution. The elite cadre of individuals have stripped every mechanism of power from us: the media, the Congress, the judicial system, and the economy. The only way to retake power is through massive, non-violent, civil disobedience. We must obstruct, disrupt, and paralyze the gears of the system. As Mario Savio says: “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. You have got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, and upon all the apparatus. And you’ve got to make it stop.”

That time is now. You can no longer passively take part. Which side are you on?


Amazon’s Underbelly 3.0: Lobbying and Bribing to Secure Market Dominance

This is Part 3 in a three-part series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part and second part.

Amazon has continued to expand its influence on policy and on government over the past decade. We laud Jeff Bezos as the richest man in the world and how he rose to the top by his own bootstraps. Many imagine him as a self-starter, an entrepreneur, a visionary. But the fact remains that Jeff has used his vast wealth to influence policy and laws to favor his business practices. Amazon has pushed others aside in order to procure its vast influence on politics and legislation.

Granted, Amazon is not alone in this endeavor. It’s no secret that corporations endlessly lobby to get what they want – and are largely successful in buying their way to power. However, the amount that Amazon has spent purchasing political influence has recently skyrocketed. In fact, all members of Big Tech spent record amounts lobbying the U.S. government in 2018: to be precise, Google, Amazon and Facebook doled out a combined $48 million, an increase of 13 percent on the previous year. (Apple by contrast decreased its lobbying spending last year.)

For context, in 2013, Amazon spent $3.5 million on lobbying. The next year it spent $4.7 million, and in 2015 the number jumped to $9.1 million. Since 2013, Amazon’s spending on lobbying has quadrupled – rising to $13 million dollars in 2017. The company spent $14.4 million lobbying in 2018 alone, and spent more than $44 million over the last four years.

Amazon has developed a business tactic wherein the company come up with a business idea, then goes to Congress to lobby for its approval. In 2006, Amazon lobbied the USDA for the first time, ahead of launching Amazon Fresh grocery delivery in 2007. In 2012, it lobbied the USPS for the first time, before announcing Sunday delivery in partnership with the USPS.

In 2013, it lobbied the FAA on drones in the same year that Jeff Bezos announced work on drone delivery. Additionally, Amazon worked with the Treasury Department after striking a deal with Texas asking the state to drop its demand for millions in back taxes. In 2016, the company lobbied the Department of Defense before its contracts with the government became more commonplace and lucrative.


Interestingly, Amazon has consistently and substantially given more money to Democrats than Republicans. In total, the company has donated almost $300,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, DNC Services Corp and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign. Amazon has also donated on average $75,000 to Democrats such as Beto O’Rourke, Kim Schrier, Maria Cantwell and Heidi Heitkamp. The top donor is the With Honor Fund, an organization that works to elect “the next generation veterans to Congress”.

At the same time, some of Amazon’s executives have held previous roles in government. Jay Carney, who served as Joe Biden’s director of communications from 2008 to 2011, and from 2011 to 2014 served as the White House press secretary for President Obama, has been Amazon’s senior vice president of worldwide corporate affairs since 2015.

Additionally, Open Secrets revealed that 83 of 115 lobbyists have previously held government jobs.

Amazon, like other Big Tech companies, reveres former government workers for their intricate understanding of the legislative process. Viveca Novak, a director at the Center for Responsive Politics, perhaps said it best: “People who have held key posts in the administration or in Congress are prized in the private sector because of their connections and their knowledge of how the process works, two things that are instrumental to getting anything done – or undone – in Washington. The private sector believes these former government workers are often worth the princely sums they are paid, given how much money can be at stake when business interests intersect with public policy.”

“To the degree that they are trying to influence government policy without registering as lobbyists – and they don’t have to as long as they are providing ‘strategic advice’, for instance, to a colleague who is doing the more direct lobbying – the public isn’t fully informed about who’s behind an effort,” Novak said.


So here’s the score: Amazon takes all of the money that it saves by not paying taxes, and the money that it receives in federal tax credits, and uses that cash to further manipulate and change policies that make room for its newest innovations. Instead of asking permission from government and the taxpayers, it bribes members of Congress and governmental institutions to sanction its latest projects and ideas.

It’s no secret that powerful companies like Amazon have gained – and maintained – their power because they use their wealth and status to inordinately influence the legislative and political process. To them, government is nothing more than a tool to get more of what they want. To that end, they hire lobbyists and use super PACS to alter laws so that they are unaffected by the standards applied to the middle class. They buy up media outlets to control the flow of information (Jeff Bezos purchased the Washington Post, for example) and hire previous government workers to maximize their political influence.

Imagine if the money spent on lobbying were instead donated or recycled back into the economy to support our most vulnerable citizens: the mentally ill, the elderly, the uninsured or underinsured, the hungry, the unemployed, or the terminally ill. Instead, already superbly wealthy companies use that wealth to accumulate more power – simply for the sake of acquiring more power and more wealth. The tax breaks that We the People provide these businesses, and the proverbial “green light” we give them on their new technological innovations, do nothing to improve the general public’s standard of living. They simply further consolidate unprecedented amounts of largesse and political power.

Many citizens still imagine that our government plays a role as the regulatory body over American companies and commerce. But in fact the reverse is turning out to be true: Corporations like Amazon are becoming supranational and the government is, in response, subservient to them.

Citizens must work together to reclaim the power that properly belongs to the people in order to reverse this disturbing trend.

Amazon’s Underbelly 2.0: Our Government’s Faustian Bargain for Cloud Storage

This is Part II in a three-part series looking at the impacts of Amazon on government, surveillance and the democratic process. Read the first part here.

If you ask Americans who controls the majority of the cloud storage market share, they’ll likely call out Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, Google and Microsoft. But in fact it is Amazon that reigns supreme in the cloud computing world.

As I discuss in my previous article for this series, Amazon actively sells surveillance technology to our government. Additionally, Amazon is unmatched in providing cloud storage to our government, gubernatorial organizations and local municipalities.


Amazon has had a head start in the cloud market since its inception. To his credit, CEO Jeff Bezos realized about a decade ago that storing information on the Internet was cheaper and more efficient than storing information in traditional warehouses.

In 2006, Amazon formed its cloud computing branch of operations: Amazon Web Services, or AWS. After moving his information to cloud storage, Bezos began to expand and offer the space to other customers, namely, our government.

In 2010, the Obama administration started advocating for data storage in the cloud instead of brick-and-mortar data centers as a way to cut costs. Amazon was well-poised to provide the cloud space because of its substantial lead over competitors. Soon after the announcement, the company successfully snagged an opportunity to host (, the agency website tasked with overseeing the use of stimulus money. Amazon’s business with the government, and its revenues, swelled.

“Since the announcement of last March,” wrote Jeff Barr in a 2010 AWS News Blog, “Amazon has seen an accelerating adoption of the cloud by our Federal customers. These include, the Federal Register 2.0 at the National Archives, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at USDA, the project at DoE’s National Renewable Energy Lab, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA.”

In 2013, Amazon began to form cozy deals with the government to use its cloud services. For one, it designated a secret region of the cloud especially for the CIA, earning a particularly lucrative contract from the agency worth $600 million dollars. Amazon now serves all 17 agencies of the intelligence community and provides commercial cloud capability across all classification levels: from unclassified to sensitive, secret and top secret.


The company’s expansion into our government continues to this day. Now Amazon claims that over 2,000 government agencies are using AWS. Federal agencies such as the Department for Veterans Affairs, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, NASA JPL and the U.S. Department of Defense are all clients. So are state and local institutions like the City of Chicago, the New York Public Library and the City of Los Angeles, all of whom depend on AWS for cloud computing services.

Securing its regional and local dominance, in January 2017 the company won a contract with U.S. Communities – a coalition of 90,000 local governments.

Today, AWS dominates no less than one-third of the worldwide cloud market. The IT research firm Gartner shows figures much higher, revealing that AWS’s quadrant showed it captured 83 percent of the cloud computing infrastructure market. Amazon controls such a dizzying market share because of the almost-guaranteed patronage of the U.S. government.

Continuing this trend, the online behemoth is currently in line to sign a staggering $10 billion contract with the Defense Department, known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI). All bids were due in October 2018 and a decision is expected to be made this April. Other companies, from IBM to Oracle, have filed protests stating that the solicitation has been uncompetitive. The Government Accountability Office has since ruled against Oracle, allowing the process to move forward.

Amazon is also poised to serve as a portal for government purchases. Last year, a provision in a law passed by Congress required the General Services Administration (GSA) to set up “commercial e-commerce portals” for government purchase orders costing less than $25,000. This law became known as the “Amazon amendment” among critics.

Amazon didn’t earn this deal based on merit or business acumen. Instead, it used its political influence to change the outcome. As The Guardian revealed, in 2017, the head of Amazon Business’s public sector division, Anne Rung, privately advised on the GSA internet portal before the legislation was finalized and the company was chosen. Coincidentally, Rung was a former official in the Obama administration and she even ran the Office of Management and Budget’s Federal Procurement Policy office before joining Amazon.

Technically, there is nothing illegal about all this (there isn’t a law, yet, banning Washington’s revolving door). But the fact is Amazon is receiving advantages that other stakeholders, such as public interest groups, are not receiving.

Not only that, Amazon won another contract to become the chief supplier of goods like stationery and books to thousands of local governments and municipalities – a contract worth up to $5.5 billion.

It’s safe to say the government has become Amazon’s best customer, providing a steady stream of commerce that has been most lucrative for the company.


Last year, AWS generated $1.4 billion in operating income for Amazon in Q1 alone. Later that year the figure increased by 46 percent to $6.7 billion.

Amazon’s lack of transparency about the expansion of its cloud storage is disappointing – but not surprising. Despite all the information we have on AWS and its quid pro quo relationship with our government, we still don’t know the sheer magnitude of its size and scope.

This because most of the information remains classified – including its CIA contract – due to Amazon’s refusal to reveal intricate details of its contracts and deals. Amazon often declines to comment about how much of its business is connected to the federal government. It’s only through FOIA requests that we are able to glean the partial information that is available.

Are we comfortable, as citizens, entrusting an untrustworthy, mega of mega-companies with the responsibility of storing information for our local and federal government? We were never given a choice in the matter, much less a say. Even more concerning, Amazon’s invasive surveillance technology, like Rekognition and Alexa, sends information to similar clouds to be processed and matched to a database.

The fact that Amazon has become the de facto government provider for both surveillance technology and cloud storage is a troubling development that signals a disturbing relationship between business and the officials who run our state. It was Benito Mussolini’s ghostwriter, Giovanni Gentile, who stated that “fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, because it is a merger of state and corporate power.”

One need look no further than the future location of Amazon’s HQ2 – in Arlington County, Virginia, one mile south of the Pentagon to observe this encroaching merger. The symbolism of the symbiosis between state and corporate power couldn’t be clearer.

Our government, and the officials we elect, are addicted to the line of supporting free-market economics at all costs. But in reality, that government consistently prefers to cut deals with corporations that operate surreptitiously and clandestinely. We, as citizens, must remain vigilant or we may soon be faced with a monster too big to take down.

Amazon’s Underbelly 1.0: Bolstering the Surveillance State with Rekognition

When most people hear Amazon, they think of an online store that features easy, one-click retail sales, convenient two-day shipping and millions of downloadable e-books. They picture a cute smiley logo.

However, this is only the small, visible part of Amazon’s iceberg of revenue and influence. In the underbelly beneath the surface lies the company’s true operation: cloud data storage and the development of advanced surveillance tools for governments.

Amazon is actively working to sell a new type of facial recognition technology, known as Rekognition, to various branches of government and municipalities.

Rekognition has plenty of abilities and uses that are admittedly innocuous: the creation of searchable video and image libraries; user verification; detection of explicit content in images and videos; extraction of text from images, videos and banners; and identification of vehicles based on license plate numbers. It also recognizes popular celebrities.

Other uses are more disconcerting. Rekognition claims that it can detect emotions such as happy, sad or surprise. It also asserts that it can determine demographic information of a person, such as gender, from facial images alone. The software can analyze these images and send the emotional and demographic information to a section of Amazon Web Services, or AWS – its Internet hosting service.

Rekognition is also capable of recognizing faces in a crowd, and compares and stores them in a database container called “a face collection.”

“With Amazon Rekognition,” the website continues, “you can search images, stored videos, and streaming videos for faces that match those stored in a container known as a face collection. A face collection is an index of faces that you own and manage.”

The potential abuse of this software for surveillance and data harvesting purposes is so troubling that some of Amazon’s shareholders have pleaded with the company to forgo selling the facial recognition technology to the government.

Their letter of protest, however, was submitted too late. To date, Rekognition has already been sold to two local law enforcement agencies: the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, in Oregon, and the Orlando Police Department in Florida.

The technology is now in its second pilot in Orlando after its first attempt was canceled following resounding citizen oppositionAccording to documents obtained by Buzzfeed through a FOIA request, Amazon provided “tens of thousands of dollars of technology to [Orlando] at no cost,” and shielded the city with a “mutual nondisclosure agreement that kept details out of the public eye.”

Buzzfeed also learned that Amazon provided no hands-on training to the officers. Amazon declined to answer on-record if the system learns from the videos it takes in, if they provided hands-on training to officers, or how the system disregards faces that are not “persons of interest.”

Washington County, which has used Rekognition for about a year and a half, claims the technology is helpful in finding “persons of interest” through existing mugshots, and helping investigate Amber alerts. According to the sheriff’s office, state law doesn’t permit the use of technology for mass or real-time surveillance.

However, the term “persons of interest,” used by both departments, is conveniently vague and nebulous enough that it may apply to just about anyone – even those without a reasonable suspicion of criminal activity. The stakes are incredibly high when officers entrust a nascent piece of technology to inform them to make instant, life-or-death decisions.

Additionally, Amazon is pitching its Rekognition software to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Although it seems this could streamline the government’s maintenance of records, there is also potential for significant errors and discrimination.

ICE already uses biometrics (fingerprints) in its documentation and cataloguing of undocumented immigrants. But the use of fingerprints has come under intense scrutiny for targeting undocumented immigrants for deportation. The misuse and lack of oversight has motivated a group of lawyers to sue ICE and submit FOIA requests to explain its oversight procedure. Facial recognition technology will likely continue this worrisome trend.

But Rekognition may not even help the police and ICE for the simple reason that it is inconsistent and inaccurate.

The ACLU ran a test in which it built a face database and search tool using 25,000 publicly available arrest photos. Then, the organization searched that database against public photos of every current member of the House and Senate. In its test, the ACLU found that Amazon’s Rekognition software incorrectly matched 28 members of Congress with mugshots of others who have been arrested for a crime.

About 40 percent of Rekognition’s false matches in this test were people of color. Of these members, six of the incorrect matches were individuals from the Congressional Black Caucus, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis – a celebrity the technology arguably should recognize.

Given the Trump administration’s dismal performance – failure in enforcing border security, managing undocumented immigrants’ families, and restraining ICE’s terrorization of communities of color – paired with the software’s proven potential for racial bias, the adoption of this technology is particularly concerning and should be grounds for rejection of its use outright.

Furthermore, the government is now testing the technology for use within the FBI, which would allow federal agents to sift through videos and images more quickly than ever before. It will also allow the FBI to build a system to automate the identification and tracking of any citizen. If the FBI adopts the nebulous term “persons of interest,” as our municipal police precincts have done, the nation’s most powerful and pervasive law enforcement body would have free rein to target whomever it likes.

But Amazon’s surveillance rampage doesn’t stop there. Rekognition is coming to homes as well.

Amazon has submitted a patent to pair Rekognition and databases with a doorbell company called Ring, which, incidentally, Amazon bought earlier in 2018. With Ring and Rekognition combined, police can match the faces of people walking by the camera with a photo database of people that they deem “suspicious.” Homeowners can add photos of “suspicious” people and if a match occurs, the person’s face can be sent automatically to law enforcement.

Again, without legislative or judicial oversight, and without precedent, terms “suspicious” and “persons of interest” can quickly swell to include a large number of people who are not criminals.

The fact that Amazon is providing the surveillance software to catalog, document and match personal information, along with the cloud storage to store it all, is emblematic of an unsettling initiative where big business and big government work together to enact a pervasive surveillance state.

At the very least, Amazon’s spokespeople, federal government officials and local municipalities must be held accountable to provide fixed and honest answers about the real intentions of these devices. More importantly, they need to tell us how the government would specifically utilize these tools.

At the same time, citizens must ask how tools like Rekognition will benefit them – and demand assurances that they aren’t simply being used to consolidate government and corporate power over our lives. Given the current political climate, and in respect of the Fourth Amendment, this technology shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near our federal government in the first place.

Regime Change in Venezuela, but Human Suffering Continues 2/15/2019

Regime Change in Venezuela, But Human Suffering Continues

The situation is indeed bleak in Venezuela. The crisis has been particularly harmful to Venezuelan citizens who face chronic food shortages, lack of access to medicine, crumbling and unstable transportation systems, hyperinflation, political unrest, violence and inadequate health care. A massive number of citizens have fled the country in order to escape the instability. But something must be done to rectify the suffering of the Venezuelan people.


Fortunately, the United States government is on the case. It has a tried-and-true approach to handling these messy matters and it has a proven track record to boot. The general tactic is simple:

• Fund opposition groups and covertly send them armaments.

• Politically denounce the regime in power or opposition group (whichever is in contrast to United States interests).

• Diplomatically isolate the regime.

• Ideologically condemn the country (typically left-wing governments).

• Economically ravage the country and its citizens with sanctions and blockades.

• “Stabilize” the country by installing a leader (typically a right-wing dictator) that will acquiesce to United States interests.
Time and again our government has followed this approach in Central and South America, and the results speak for themselves. Here are a few brief examples:


President Ronald Reagan signed legislation to covertly support Contra forces against the reigning Sandinistas. He also supported the production and shipment of arms to the area. Around 10,000 to 43,000 people were killed in that war.


The Reagan and Carter administrations provided military aid to the government. The United States sent military advisers to help the right-wing government combat left-wing guerrillas. Around 75,000 civilians lost their lives in that war.


President Eisenhower, under pressure from the United Fruit Company, authorized the CIA (operation PBSUCCESS) to aid in the overthrow of the democratically elected left-wing Jacobo Arbenz. They succeeded and installed a right-wing dictator, Carlos Castillo Armas. Many social reforms were reversed and decades of civil war ensued. About 200,000 civilians died in this civil war, including the genocide of the Maya population.


The CIA covertly spent approximately $3 million to oppose the democratically-elected President Salvador Allende. After providing military aid to the Chilean armed forces in order to overthrow him, the U.S. installed a right-wing dictator, Augusto Pinochet, and supported him throughout his tenure. Tens of thousands of Chileans were disappeared, tortured, jailed or executed.

Similar tactics were employed in other countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and many others. The fact is, the United States has routinely taken covert, drastic action to alter the political course of events in countries around the world – but it put emphasis on those that were in its “backyard,” Latin America. It has made these decisions without regard to their practicality, the financial resources required, the will of the local population, the potential death toll, and most importantly, the human suffering these actions would ultimately cause and continue causing long after the fact.

The U.S. government won’t ask for our – the public’s – opinion because it doesn’t want to hear it. It never did. Washington is going to do what it wants regardless. The case of Venezuela today appears no different.


President Trump and his top aides have repeatedly noted that “all options are on the table” regarding Venezuela. Bear in mind that “all options are on the table” is a platitude long used by presidents and national security advisors to indicate that military action is imminent or perhaps already in motion. Here’s what our government has already done to destabilize the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro:

• Given opposition leader Juan Guaido some control over Venezuelan assets.

• Sent humanitarian aid via trucks.

• Officially recognized the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly, Juan Guaido, as Interim President.

• Imposed sanctions on the Venezuelan state-owned oil firm PDVSA.

The U.S. government, in short, is employing its tried-and-true approach in lock step. But this time, Washington’s world planners didn’t even offer us the traditional courtesy of spinning a nice story soaked in military and geopolitical jargon. Instead, it has become increasingly steadfast and grotesquely candid in its pursuit to acquire Venezuela’s oil reserves.

National Security Adviser John Bolton recently stated, “Venezuela is one of the three countries I call the troika of tyranny. It will make a big difference to the United States economically if we could have American oil companies really invest in and produce the oil capabilities in Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of Venezuela. It’d be good for the people of the United States.”


Democrats who now control the House could ultimately step up to try and stop Team Trump’s crazy antics. During Trump’s recent State of the Union address, they stayed seated, unified and many of them clad in white, when Trump reiterated his plans to build the wall. They stayed seated as well when he mentioned introducing legislation to prohibit late-term abortion.

But as soon as Trump barked out his support for an alternative government in Venezuela, they rose in near unison with Republicans, clapping like seals in support. Our country is so divided, on so many issues, yet intervening in foreign countries is a united addiction we just can’t tear ourselves away from.

Granted, there has been some congressional resistance to the use of military force in Venezuela. But the resistance is not sufficient to stop our government on its current war path.


All of which begs the question: How does our government decide when to get involved and when not to? For example, why didn’t Washington intervene militarily in Brazil? Brazil has been rife with political turmoil, upheaval and unrest over the past decade. President Dilma Rousseff was the target of a highly controversial and politically driven impeachment trial, and the populist Lula de Silva was the victim of an even more controversial arrest and incarceration. The country’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro – a polemic character who has come under scrutiny for his intense far-right stances, comments and policies – was narrowly elected after winning a runoff vote.

Why hasn’t our government stepped in to help the poor people of Brazil? It’s simple: Brazil doesn’t have the easily marketable resources – ie. oil – that Venezuela has and therefore isn’t crucial to U.S. economic interests. Our government only intervenes if there is a strategic economic or military advantage for doing so.


No matter your stance on the current sociopolitical and economic crisis in Venezuela, the American public should be duly informed and have a say in the actions of its government. And as United Nations members politely tap their gavels in air conditioned and elaborately decorated rooms; as national advisers sit in their office buildings conveniently shielded from the horrors of everyday strife; as presidents callously issue orders behind bulletproof glass; and as state department memos are meticulously drafted in basements monitored by security officers, human suffering continues. The governments of the world are out of touch with the consequences of their actions.

The needs of a country’s citizenry are never considered when governments and important advisers posture for power and position. Far worse, the victims of their terrible decisions are never asked their opinion, and never will be asked. The everyday person will continue to be used as a pawn in global leaders’ endless chess game: dispensable, replaceable, negligible.

Only when we return the focus to exposing and rectifying the human suffering as a result of our government’s policies will we begin to heal and carry out effective solutions to these dynamic issues.

JCPOA: Iran nuclear deal under threat


Iran has issued some bleak threats in the face of the looming “repeal” of the JCPOA in the United States. Trump has indicated that he will not renew the deal in May 12 unless Iran accepts new restrictions. Iran has made clear that they have no intention of doing this.

No duh – that’s what an agreement is. You don’t add stipulations one way without expecting something in return. For the U.S. to expect Iran to accept new restrictions just because is just asinine.

In fact, the Iranian leader, Mr. Zarif, has claimed that the United States has violated protocol and is in no position to make such demands.

Zarif said:

“The US is sending a very dangerous message to the people of Iran and the people of the world. It says you never come to an agreement with the US.

“The situation is creating an impression globally that agreements don’t matter.”

The JCPOA, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was a deal reached with Iran and other permanent United Nation members. It basically removed the economic sanctions on Iran and in return Iran would reduce its nuclear stockpiles significantly (cut its medium-enriched stockpile completely and its low-enriched stockpile by 98%).

I can almost sense John Bolton whispering in Trump’s ear. Don’t renew this deal so that we can increase our chances of having a delicious war. It is a valid fear, as impetuous as Trump is, that this deal will fall apart. Trump and Bolton (and others) may be upset that the Iranian regime is involved in Syria, but this political posturing will only continue to make it worse for the everyday person.

That is what governments do: They take imbecilic and sophomoric action on behalf of their citizens without actually having their approval. In the end, it’s US that suffer the consequences, not the U.S.

The war lines are starting to be drawn. In one corner, Russia, China, Syria, Iran, maybe North Korea.

In the other corner, NATO, Israel, South Korea, and the United States.

Nixing this deal with only exacerbate the conditions for war.


Journalists who want online privacy need to read this guide

Originally published on November 2, 2017 on

We live in a time of journalistic prosecution, as investigative journalists get increasingly targeted for simply doing their job. The Obama Administration prosecuted more individuals under the Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined; in fact, it used the law to prosecute journalists almost exclusively.

It is imperative that journalists protect themselves as they continue to pursue their important work in the face of growing government control. That is why Michael Dagan, a former deputy editor of the Israeli newspaper Haaertz, and Ariel Hochstadt, a former security expert as well as a marketing expert for Google, have created a guide, Online Privacy for Journalists, to help journalists protect both themselves and their sources.

“Many journalists whom I have spoken with recently expressed concern for whatever lies ahead for the freedom of the press. All encryption systems can be compromised, if someone has the perseverance to track them,” writes Dagan in an introductory paragraph. “The good news is that it is nevertheless possible to make it difficult for anyone to try and intercept your emails, the text messages you’re sending or your phone calls.”

One may be surprised by the extreme measures the guide suggests are necessary as preventive steps to ensure the highest likelihood of a journalist maintaining privacy. Here are some examples:

  • Only download apps that require minimum rights.
  • Beware of big names because they are known to blindly comply with requests from the government for information.
  • Use separate computers for correspondence and purchase new computers from pawn shops.
  • Use disposable e-mails and disposable phones specifically for the use of speaking with your source. Make sure the source does the same thing.
  • Don’t talk to sources over the phone: phone companies store important metadata.
  • Don’t send messages over SMS text.
  • Perform full disk encryption. Don’t rely on cloud storage because that can be more easily accessed.
  • Fully encrypt e-mail and make sure the source does also.
  • Private browsing in Chrome or Firefox does nothing important. TOR Browser is one of the few secure methods to browse the web, despite its pitfalls.
  • Do not use organizational chats: Campfire, Skype, Google Hangouts, or Slack. They are easy to break in.
  • Use passphrases over 20 characters. Use a series of words that make sense only to you.
  • Use two-factor authentication.
  • Don’t keep notes on any information about the source, on your laptop or anywhere – even on paper.
  • Use a VPN at all times when possible.

If the list of measures seems exhaustive and thorough, that’s because it is. But given the current climate of threat to journalists at home and abroad, the guide clearly fills a need. Its message is simple: The delicate, important, noble work of investigative journalists must be protected, and the brave individuals who carry it out must protect themselves as well.

The most recent, tragic example was the murder several weeks ago of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. “Caruana Galizia was a harsh critic of the government and effectively triggered an early election this year by publishing allegations linking [Prime Minister Joseph] Muscat to the Panama Papers scandal,” wrote the BBC. The killing of Caruana Galizia, whose popular blog targeted opposition politicians, is one of many examples of recent journalists – from Russia to Mexico to the Philippines and beyond – who have been silenced for investigating and writing the truth.

In the U.S., where journalist assassinations aren’t so common, questions tend to center more on cyber security for whistleblowers – think Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, James Risen, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange. Nonetheless, the message is clear: Journalists everywhere need to take to heart the precautions and suggestions laid out by Dagan and Hochstadt. Furthermore, everyday citizens should consider using these techniques to protect their privacy as well.

The full text of the guide can be found here.

As new pipelines get built, more people are standing in the way

Originally printed on November 27, 2017 on

Reprinted on Nation of Change

Energy companies are notorious for their insistence and tenacity in creating new pipeline projects. Just look at TransCanada’s reviled Keystone XL, which took nine years to win approval earlier this month by Nebraska regulators, although the project’s future still hangs in the air.

The fact is, despite the damage they continue to cause to human health and the environment, investment in oil and gas industry infrastructure remains stable. The United States has the largest network of energy pipelines in the world, with more than 2.5 million miles of pipe on or underground. The American Petroleum Institute, one of the most powerful lobbying arms of the fossil fuel industry, estimates that investment in oil and gas will remain more than $80 billion annually until after 2020, at which point it will decrease to $60 billion by 2025.

Readers may find this continued support for fossil fuels surprising, not least given that global oil prices have fallen sharply over the past couple of years. Pipelines remain extremely dangerous and unreliable. Nonetheless, projects are continuing apace, as demonstrated by the industry’s relentless efforts to battle against and wear out protesters from the Keystone XL to the Dakota Access Pipeline.

For example, Enbridge Energy, from Canada, is proposing a replacement of its old Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, which was installed in the 1960s and is now considered too costly to remove. Instead, the company is seeking to build a new $7.5 billion pipeline to replace it. To make matters worse, all of the crude oil that doesn’t leak from Line 3 will be burned, releasing a vast stream of carbon into the atmosphere.

Meanwhile, Energy Transfer Partners, the Fortune 500 company that is building the Dakota Access Pipeline across the Standing Rock Sioux’s tribal land, is also busy constructing Mariner East 2, a pipeline in the West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania regions to carry crude oil to refineries in Philadelphia. ETP is also behind contentious projects like Bayou Bridge in Louisiana and Trans-Pecos in Texas.

But make no mistake: the implementation of these pipelines isn’t easy. Across the nation, energy companies are increasingly being accused of malicious, often illegal tactics to subdue resistance and keep protestors at bay. The violent events that took place during the DAPL occupation in North Dakota provide enough evidence of this.


Yet even amid the companies’ growing use of scare tactics and secret maneuvers, citizens are ramping up direct action. People have braved the elements and matched the energy giants with their own brand of force, as residents nationwide turn to a mix of creative and traditional tactics to halt as many projects as they can.

For example, in late September, people participated in a “Hold the Line” rally in the Minnesota State Capitol to protest the Line 3 project. Among them was 70-year-old Minnesotan David Johnson, who said he would stand firm against large energy companies despoiling their state.

“I didn’t want to [be a speaker], but I love this land,” he said. “It’s a pretty isolated part of the county right on the edge of the vast wetlands. There’s lots of wildlife and very few people. I don’t want it threatened by the pipeline and their access roads and the potential leaks.”

Also in September, angry residents in Superior, WI, took more drastic and visible measures through direct action. Unicorn Riot reported that citizens overturned cars to block the way to the pipeline construction site, and chained themselves to the cars.

Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, four residents filed a federal lawsuit against Energy Transfer Partners claiming that the company had violated their constitutional rights, harassed landowners and caused emotional distress to pipeline protestors.

“Since May of 2015, every day of my life has been affected by the plans to build this pipeline, and the lengths that Energy Transfer Partners will go to in the pursuit of profit,” said plaintiff Elise Gerhart, who lives on property that the pipeline will cross. “We’ve been needlessly harassed by agencies and violently threatened by individuals who’ve been intentionally incited and mobilized.”

Citizens are increasingly challenging the process by which energy companies seize private property for the use of pipelines, known as eminent domain, generating more controversy over the issue. And people-powered organizations like are leading campaigns to remove the source of funding for these projects by getting big banks to divest from fossil fuels.

In some cases, environmental agencies are also doing their part to block unsafe aspects of these pipeline projects, like in North Carolina, where the Department of Environment Quality rejected the Atlantic Coast Pipeline’s erosion control plan.

Despite the overwhelming evidence that pipelines remain unreliable, prone to damage, disrepair and devastating leaks, energy companies continue to treat their bottom line as the only factor when making decisions. As a result, more and more citizens are stepping up to hold companies accountable for their actions, and for their lies, using all the legislative, judicial, financial, political, physical and other creative tactics at their disposal.

Google’s casualties: Is there a corporate-state conspiracy to censor progressive websites?

Originally posted on August 14, 2017 on

Back around December 2016, Google caught some flak because its search box Autocomplete function brought up disturbing terms like “Holocaust denial,” connected with untrustworthy websites, to the top query results list. In response, late in April 2017, Google announced it was changing its search algorithms to combat the dissemination of fake news and conspiracy theories.

“The most high profile of these [Internet issues] is the phenomenon of ‘fake news,’” Google claimed in a blog post, “where content on the web has contributed to the spread of blatantly misleading, low quality, offensive or downright false information…We’re taking the next step toward continuing to surface more high-quality content from the web. This includes improvements in Search ranking, easier ways for people to provide direct feedback, and greater transparency about how Search works.”

But as it turns out, there may be other casualties in these seemingly noble, well-intentioned goals.

According to some reports, the upgrade to Google’s search algorithm has resulted in a significant reduction in traffic to various socialist, progressive and anti-war web sites. Democracy Now!, Common Dreams, Wikileaks, Truth-Out, Alternet, Counterpunch and The Intercept, among others, have registered a substantial decline in readership and traffic since the new Google search algorithm was established in the spring.

“The World Socialist Web Site has obtained statistical data from SEMrush estimating the decline of traffic generated by Google searches for 13 sites with substantial readerships,” reports The site goes on to claim these specific drops in readership since April:

In a separate post, the website claims that The Real News saw its search traffic drop by 37 percent, while the website of prominent digital rights leader Richard Stallman has seen a 24 percent decline.

But before we explore the censorship casualties from this new-found policy, we should first briefly look at how the algorithm actually works.

First and foremost, according to Google’s own blog, Google hires “raters” and “evaluators” as part of its screening process to determine what site links are valid enough to rise to the top of the results page. The company’s updated Search Quality Rater Guidelines detail how Google raters flag websites according to different criteria. The guidelines are surprisingly succinct: the document coaches raters on how to find main content, supplementary content, advertisements, website designers, contact information and sources. It also offers criteria of what it considers to be “highest quality” pages to “lowest quality” pages, with gradients of “high,” “medium” and “low” in between.

The guidelines encourage raters to search for examples of primarily two things: the established reputation of a site, and examples of what Google calls “EAT,” or Expertise, Authoritativeness and Trustworthiness. Websites are then ranked on the prevalence of these criteria.

At issue is the fact that many of the left-leaning websites may not meet the above criteria, and are therefore flagged as “low quality” or “lowest quality,” dooming them to a demotion on Google’s query results pages. Terms like “misleading” and “not authoritative” are often listed as the reasons for designating certain websites with a low quality score. Many of the aforementioned progressive websites have won few if any awards, rely on advertisement for support, and may or may not quote so-called “experts” in all of their articles – leading to their “low quality” descriptions by Google.

Additionally, the Google search box now allows users to report inaccurate and potentially offensive Autocomplete lines or snippets. While the idea might sound great – everyday people can report terms, ideas and phrases deemed offensive in today’s cultural zeitgeist – there is no limit to how much one individual can report. Consequently, people driven by political or other motives can, and often do, flag certain websites or ideas as “offensive,” further driving down their credibility. For example, I can type in “socialism,” “new world order,” or “care bears,” and flag all those terms as offensive, therefore skewing the algorithmic data.

Surely the vast majority of us agree that Holocaust denial is a repugnant theory whose time has come to be extinguished. But is it a technology company’s responsibility to expunge that idea from our supposed free marketplace of ideas? More importantly, if a behemoth like Google can determine that Holocaust denial should be flushed from the first page of query results, can they also condemn other, less threatening ideas to the same fate?

The recent report by World Socialist Web Site raises a critical question that has yet to be answered: Are these socialist, progressive and anti-war websites being demoted simply because they are operating as low-budget enterprises, or is this trend part of a greater corporate-state conspiracy to attack freedom of expression and ideas? More discussion and investigation is needed on this matter, but the bottom line is this: I’d rather not leave it to Google to filter out my research on the topic based on what its algorithm deems “accredited,” “trustworthy,” or “authoritative.”

We as a society have firmly determined that Holocaust denial is an error of opinion based on its irrational, unsubstantiated and, quite frankly, offensive position. Citizens should bear the responsibility, and the power, to weed out these and other harmful ideas from our search engine lexicon. It shouldn’t be up to one of the planet’s most powerful corporations to determine what is safe for us to read and be exposed to. We do not need “raters” working for Google sifting through websites that could potentially mislead us – just as we did not need Google algorithms or raters to tell us that Holocaust denial is a bunk theory.

As John Milton, Thomas Jefferson and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes all insinuated in their allusion to the “marketplace of ideas”: error of opinion can be tolerated if reason is left to combat it.