Emily Manna is a policy analyst at Open the Government, a non-partisan coalition that advances policies that create a more transparent, accountable, and responsive government. At The American Conservative, Manna digs in to Amazon’s growing relationship with the Department of Defense. Led by CEO Jeff Bezos, Amazon is increasingly providing cloud and artificial intelligence services to the DoD. Manna and Open the Government suggest a lack of transparency in Amazon’s work for the government. She writes (abridged):
Amazon, headed by Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, has received its fair share of negative attention recently, and it’s no surprise: the company is a master at racking up tax subsidies and maximizing loopholes. It paid $0 in corporate income taxes for 2018, while reportedly maintaining abominable working conditions for many of its 613,000 employees in the United States.
But it may be Amazon’s activities in Washington that warrant more scrutiny, as Open the Government notes in our new report, Government, Inc.: Amazon, Government Security & Secrecy.
He (Bezos) is now seeking to expand Amazon’s reach even further by providing cloud services and artificial intelligence to the military. And he’s leaps ahead of the competition for what may be the largest single source government IT contract in history—the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) program with the Department of Defense.
Amazon’s advantage in this regard is that Amazon Web Services (AWS) already provides cloud computing services across the federal government. Analysts predict the company’s total U.S. government business for 2019 could rise to as much as $4.6 billion. Even when AWS is not the direct provider, it’s often partnered with other contractors. In 2013, half of the 10 vendors that were part of a $10 billion Interior Department contract partnered with Amazon.
The tech companies, for their part, don’t seem terribly concerned about how their technology will be used. Despite facing employee protests regarding government use of AI services, Microsoft and Amazon declared their intent to continue working with the military and law enforcement.
The layers of secrecy here are vast. First, overclassification and excessive secrecy are typical of the military and national security agencies. Second, the AI technology itself is difficult to understand and explain even for its creators, much less to oversight bodies or the public transparency requirements as government agencies.
Congress should work to rectify this problem by mandating greater transparency from the Pentagon both in our conflicts overseas as well as on their current and planned use of AI in those conflicts, and by ensuring better public access to information from private government contractors.
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