Mon, Feb 04, 2019 - Page 7 News List

From books to bullets: inside Amazon’s push to help defend the US

The company, which hosts top-secret CIA data and powers the US’ immigration case management system, is bidding to take on a US$10 billion Pentagon project

By Levi Pulkkinen  /  The Guardian, SEATTLE, Washington

Illustration: Yusha

First it sold books. Then it added gadgetry, groceries and chipper virtual assistants — but Inc’s latest expansion will take many shoppers by surprise.

Meet Amazon, aspiring military behemoth.

In the not too distant future, US soldiers might rely on Amazon-run systems to trade intelligence, relay orders and call for help. Drone footage might be scoured for wanted men and women by Amazon software. Defense department quartermasters would use Amazon technology to move ammunition and supplies.

For Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, it is not a question of whether customers will mind his company’s defense ambitions, or of complaints raised by civil liberties advocates. As Amazon’s face and founder casts it, the issue is one of patriotism.

“This is a great country and it does need to be defended,” Bezos said during an October Wired magazine summit. “If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble.”

Now Amazon is the leading contender for a 10-year, US$10 billion project to accelerate the Pentagon’s move into cloud computing.

The department has said that the goal of the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure — widely known by its Star Wars-styled acronym, JEDI — is to increase the US’ “lethality” by replacing its antiquated, segmented information technology systems.

Amazon is widely regarded as the strongest contender for the JEDI contract, which is expected to be inked in the first half of the year, in part because its division Amazon Web Services (AWS) already dominates cloud computing in the US.

One 2017 estimate found that AWS held more than half of the worldwide cloud computing market. AWS hosts top-secret data for the CIA, supports federal agencies from the US Department of Justice to NASA, powers the US’ national immigration case management system and stores hundreds of millions of identity documents.

JEDI is expected to inject modern technology into a creaky system. An audit in November last year found that “systemic flaws” in defense department networks invite hacking and that the department’s finance systems were so disorganized that they could not be audited.

JEDI is a first step toward a system that will handle tasks as diverse as frontline communications, medical records management and scheduling.

The finished system is to move petabytes of data between every continent except Antarctica. Service members at the “tactical edge” are to be equipped with rugged devices enabling them to check into the cloud. Modular data centers are to be deployed to forward bases. The Pentagon hopes those can operate in space.

If Amazon wins the JEDI contract and another contract to open a government e-commerce portal, the company would “vault from being a bit player to becoming one of the 10 most dominant federal contractors, with potential to become one of the largest in relatively short order,” said Steven Schooner, a professor of government procurement law at George Washington University.

Amazon makes no apologies for moving aggressively into the public sector in this way.

“We feel strongly that the defense, intelligence and national security communities deserve access to the best technology in the world and we are committed to supporting their critical missions of protecting our citizens and defending our country,” a spokesperson for the Seattle-based company said in response to a request for comment.

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