An Amazon Web Services employee emailed a series of internal Amazon listservs and told them that their communications were being monitored for labor organizing efforts and processed in a data farming project by the company's Global Security Operations, according to an internal email obtained by Motherboard. The emails were sent—at least—to the employee listservs "Indigenous@amazon.com" and "firstname.lastname@example.org," and mentioned a handful of other listservs the employee believed were being watched.
"If you are a moderator or user of this list, please note that it is being explicitly watched by an internal monitoring team,” the Amazon Web Services employee wrote to members of at least two of the listservs. "This is part of a wider project to generate and curate data on internal employees and external entities."
"While we may be under the impression that everything we write at Amazon is at least saved somewhere for review, it is important that those on this list know that they are being explicitly watched and processed in a data farming project from GSO [Global Security Operations]," the employee continued.
According to the email, listservs being monitored include black-employee-network@, we-wont-build-it@, transgender@, indigenous@, arabs@, persians@, glamazon@, latinos@, colombianos@, asians-at-amazon@, coronavirusvolunteers@, and dozens of others. The vast majority of listservs listed by the AWS employee as being monitored are designed for employees from groups who are underrepresented in Silicon Valley; we-wont-build-it refers to a listserv of employees who are against Amazon working with ICE, among other government entities. The AWS employee noted that not all Amazon listservs were monitored this way, and they specifically noted that Christians@ is not monitored while muslims@ is monitored.
An Amazon spokesperson said that it monitors groups based on their size and activity, not their content.
The spokesperson said that the company uses "several methods to gather feedback at scale," which includes "anonymized feedback that is sometimes shared from these open email forums." It is not surprising that companies have access to corporate email, however not all companies proactively monitor employee emails as Amazon says it does.
“We continually work to improve the Amazon employee experience, and with hundreds of thousands of employees located around the world, we use several methods to gather feedback at scale," the spokesperson said. "The anonymized feedback that is sometimes shared from these open email forums has helped us improve our employee benefits, further strengthen our COVID-19 procedures, and improve the overall Amazon employee experience.”
The spokesperson said the Amazon Web Services employee inaccurately described the program's intention and vision in their email to the listservs, and clarified that the monitored listservs were selected based on their activity level and size. Amazon did not respond to a question from Motherboard about whether all listservs were monitored, whether christians@ was being monitored, and whether employees who are part of those listservs were made aware that they were monitored.
The Amazon Web Services employee notes that this data was being used to track "Whole Foods Market Activism/Unionization Efforts, Internal Communications-Social Listening, Presence of Local Union Chapters and Alt Labor Groups, Presence of Community Organizations, Union Officials and Social Influencers." Motherboard was unable to specifically verify this.
The email was sent during a period of increased scrutiny of Amazon for its efforts to thwart internal labor organizing efforts, and surveil workers' efforts to plan protests and other forms of collective action. Since the start of the pandemic, Amazon has fired at least two warehouse workers and two corporate employees who agitated and organized for improved working conditions.
In early September, Motherboard reported that Amazon posted a job listing for two intelligence analysts who could monitor "labor organizing threats" within the company. Within hours, the job post was deleted and declared an error.
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Motherboard also reported on a secret surveillance program that Amazon used to monitor the closed social media groups of its Amazon Flex Drivers. Amazon corporate employees were receiving regular reports about the social media posts of their drivers, compiled from dozens of different private Facebook groups. The reports specifically tracked "planning for any strike or protest against Amazon." After Motherboard published the article, a spokesperson said the program did not meet Amazon’s "standards" and promised to discontinue it.
On September 17, Senators Sherrod Brown and Ron Wyden sent a letter to Jeff Bezos demanding that Amazon stop spying on its workers’ social media posts and interfering with union organizing efforts.