Everyone is talking about Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos's recent purchase of the Washington Post. Less noticed is the conflict of interest between his ownership of the Post and Amazon’s potentially significant profits from computing and data storage contracts with numerous US government agencies including the CIA. The question is whether the newspaper will be able to even-handedly report on the US government despite Bezos's financial interest in US government contracts.
Though not as well known as its retail sales business, Amazon is a big player in data storage and cloud computing. GCN reports that Amazon's cloud services arm Amazon Web Services is the "largest hosting company in the world" and has more than 300 government agencies as customers.
Among Amazon's more recent government contracts is a 10 year, $600 million contract to build private cloud services inside CIA data centers.
Keeping and using massive amounts of data is a high priority for government agencies in general, as well as intelligence agencies operating mass spying programs. For example, Glenn Greenwald reports in the Guardian that the National Security Agency's XKeyscore program that "allows analysts to search with no prior authorization through vast databases containing emails, online chats and the browsing histories of millions of individuals" routinely purges data because of storage capacity limits:
The XKeyscore system is continuously collecting so much internet data that it can be stored only for short periods of time. Content remains on the system for only three to five days, while metadata is stored for 30 days. One document explains: "At some sites, the amount of data we receive per day (20+ terabytes) can only be stored for as little as 24 hours."
To solve this problem, the NSA has created a multi-tiered system that allows analysts to store "interesting" content in other databases, such as one named Pinwale which can store material for up to five years.
The purging of data, though, is not the NSA's preferred solution. Like the CIA, the NSA is spending big on expanding its data storage capacity. Last year James Bamford described the NSA's effort, which includes building in Bluffdale, Utah the mammoth Utah Data Center:
Under construction by contractors with top-secret clearances, the blandly named Utah Data Center is being built for the National Security Agency. A project of immense secrecy, it is the final piece in a complex puzzle assembled over the past decade. Its purpose: to intercept, decipher, analyze, and store vast swaths of the world’s communications as they zap down from satellites and zip through the underground and undersea cables of international, foreign, and domestic networks. The heavily fortified $2 billion center should be up and running in September 2013. Flowing through its servers and routers and stored in near-bottomless databases will be all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Google searches, as well as all sorts of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital “pocket litter.” It is, in some measure, the realization of the “total information awareness” program created during the first term of the Bush administration—an effort that was killed by Congress in 2003 after it caused an outcry over its potential for invading Americans’ privacy.
Given the facility’s scale and the fact that a terabyte of data can now be stored on a flash drive the size of a man’s pinky, the potential amount of information that could be housed in Bluffdale is truly staggering. But so is the exponential growth in the amount of intelligence data being produced every day by the eavesdropping sensors of the NSA and other intelligence agencies. As a result of this “expanding array of theater airborne and other sensor networks,” as a 2007 Department of Defense report puts it, the Pentagon is attempting to expand its worldwide communications network, known as the Global Information Grid, to handle yottabytes (1024 bytes) of data. (A yottabyte is a septillion bytes—so large that no one has yet coined a term for the next higher magnitude.)
Amazon's move into government big data projects including at the CIA would make it part of the "Top Secret America" detailed in a pre-Bezos 2010 Washington Post articles series. In the series, investigative reporters revealed a hidden network of intelligence programs, workers, and facilities. The beginning of the first article of the series introduces to the magnitude of "Top Secret America":
The top-secret world the government created in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has become so large, so unwieldy and so secretive that no one knows how much money it costs, how many people it employs, how many programs exist within it or exactly how many agencies do the same work.It seems safe to assume that "Top Secret America" has grown larger in the last three years.
These are some of the findings of a two-year investigation by The Washington Post that discovered what amounts to an alternative geography of the United States, a Top Secret America hidden from public view and lacking in thorough oversight. After nine years of unprecedented spending and growth, the result is that the system put in place to keep the United States safe is so massive that its effectiveness is impossible to determine.
The investigation's other findings include:
- Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
- An estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
- In Washington and the surrounding area, 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001. Together they occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings - about 17 million square feet of space.
- Many security and intelligence agencies do the same work, creating redundancy and waste. For example, 51 federal organizations and military commands, operating in 15 U.S. cities, track the flow of money to and from terrorist networks.
- Analysts who make sense of documents and conversations obtained by foreign and domestic spying share their judgment by publishing 50,000 intelligence reports each year - a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.
Conflicts of interest are common in media, and the conflicts do not necessarily cause biases in reporting. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware of the conflicts, especially when they are as significant as the conflict of interest between Amazon profiting as part of "Top Secret America" and the Washington Post uncovering and reporting the truth about the US government.
Copyright © 2013, The Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is gladly granted provided full credit is given and a live link provided.