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Former NSA chief Keith Alexander has joined Amazon – what happens now?


The former spy chief is a big hire for the tech giant.

Most generals in the military have a distinguished career in the field of war then retire to a life of consultancy, advising private security firms about their security levels. But few end up in tech companies – not least one of the world’s biggest. 

But that’s exactly what General Keith Alexander has done. After a distinguished career as the head of the US National Security Agency (NSA), Alexander has ended up on the board of Amazon, seven years after he left the US spy agency in 2013.

Alexander isn’t without his controversies: when he retired, he was highly critical of the actions of Edward Snowden, who was involved in leaking knowledge of the existence of the controversial PRISM program, which monitored social media accounts worldwide, to WikiLeaks. 

“I think it’s wrong that that newspaper reporters have all these documents, the 50,000-whatever they have and are selling them and giving them out as if these — you know it just doesn’t make sense, he said at the time.

Before his retirement, Alexander was the point person for the NSA’s response to WikiLeaks as the director of the NSA and the first-ever lead of the US Cyber Command. 

Post-retirement consultancy

The seven years since Alexander’s retirement from the US spy agency haven’t been spent on beaches sunning himself. He was co-chief executive of IronNet Cybersecurity, a network security organisation based in the Washington DC area, meaning he was able to maintain contact with the Beltway movers and shakers that would come in handy for Amazon.

That’s likely one reason why the technology giant hired the former general. His contacts and expertise, even if some consider them flawed due to his background as the critic of the flow of free information during the WikiLeaks scandal, mean he’s a powerful connection for Amazon to leverage. He’s well respected in the intelligence community, in the cybersecurity field, and most importantly with politicians and the current NSA leadership.

It’s a smart decision for Amazon, who have struggled to secure big cybersecurity contracts in the defence space.

Most recently, Amazon lost out to Microsoft in the race to land a $10 billion cloud computing contract to service the Pentagon – something that the e-commerce giant isn’t happy with. 

Amazon suing federal government

Amazon filed a lawsuit over the decision to overlook its bid by Donald Trump for the bumper contract for the Pentagon’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure. The suit claims that the reason Amazon was overlooked in favor of Microsoft was because of the ongoing spat between Donald Trump – the ultimate decision maker – and Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s owner. 

The animosity between the US president and the head of Amazon likely stems from the latter’s ownership of The Washington Post, a newspaper that has been highly critical of many of Trump’s decisions. The Washington Post claims it’s simply reporting facts and holding truth to power – the job of any journalist working today.

The lawsuit may have some merit: in February, a judge on the case issued a temporary injunction against the Pentagon, saying it couldn’t proceed with the awarding of the contract to Microsoft. 

Criticisms of Alexander’s hiring

Many people have been critical of the hiring of Alexander by Amazon – not least Edward Snowden, who faced the retired general’s ire back in 2013 for his actions.

Edward Snowden tweet screenshot

Snowden appears to fear that the same culture of silence and omerta about overarching surveillance that he claims Alexander oversaw at the NSA during his tenure there – best exemplified through the PRISM scheme – could bleed into Amazon’s day-to-day operations. That’s something other organisations, like Privacy International, also fear.

Those who are critical of Big Tech say that it’s a worrying trend in the direction of surveillance and a concern that actions could run roughshod over privacy.

Amazon’s use of mass surveillance

Amazon has come under criticism for posting a job advert for intelligence analysts, to track “labor organizing threats” – a listing it later removed after receiving backlash. 

The Open Markets Institute has highlighted the way that Amazon uses a web of surveillance to track its workers and ensure they’re operating at peak performance.

And Amazon’s past supporting police forces in the United States by offering them its Rekognition facial recognition software has come under criticism, particularly in light of the Black Lives Matter protests. 

Of course, the company categorically denies it’s moving towards surveillance – but for tech sceptics, it’s a series of developments that leave them wondering what the future is for the giant. And the hiring of one of the public faces of the last reckoning with mass surveillance from technology companies hasn’t helped dispel that fear.

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