On Tuesday, protesters disrupted the keynote speech at Amazon Web Services's (AWS) summit at the Javits Center in Manhattan to call attention to Amazon's government contracts and surveillance tools.
Activists with the New York Communities for Change (NYCC), Make the Road NY, MediaJustice, MPower Change, Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), and the Immigrant Defense Project (IDP) have come together with the #NoTechForApartheid campaign and Mijente’s #NoTechforICE campaign which focused on AWS contracts powering ICE’s surveillance, terrorizing, and deportation of migrants in the United States.
The #NoTechForApartheid campaign has set its sights on Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion cloud computing contract won by AWS and Google to consolidate Israeli government and military computational infrastructure within its borders. Observers fear the project could insulate the Israeli military from backlash stemming from the ongoing occupation of Palestine.
“Amazon Web Services: stop profiting from violence across the world. Your platform powers racist policing, mass deportations, and war—all which lead to the devastation of Black and brown communities,” said Aly Panjwani, Senior Research Analyst at Action Center on Race and the Economy, said at the keynote address. In videos shared with Motherboard, a crowd of clients, entrepreneurs, and AWS workers was hostile at times and not only booed while Panjwani and others spoke but clapped when security restrained and carried speakers out of the venue.
This isn’t the first AWS conference disrupted by protesters trying to call attention to its unethical contracts. In 2019, protesters did the same while attempting to raise awareness of the fact that Amazon served as ICE’s backbone and helped fuel its deportation machine.
"As the Israeli military bombed homes, clinics, and schools in Gaza and threatened to push Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem May 2021, Amazon Web Services and Google Cloud executives signed a $1.22 billion contract to provide cloud technology to the Israeli government and military,” the #NoTechForApartheid website reads. “By doing business with Israeli apartheid, Amazon and Google will make it easier for the Israeli government to surveil Palestinians and force them off their land."
Over the years, AWS has enthusiastically worked with governments and corporations across the world to profit from the misery and violence they inflict. Despite years of internal and external protests and pressure, Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy has been adamant about expanding AWS offerings to equip police departments with facial surveillance tech, create a carbon cloud industry to help ramp up fossil fuel extraction and production, and to provide immigration authorities with surveillance tools to terrorize and deport migrants, to name a few.
“Amazon is invested in securing as many as possible of these contracts because unfortunately surveillance and policing is still profitable. We're in a moment of time where policing has really lost its legitimacy with communities of color around the country and the globe, right,” said Myaisha Hayes, campaign strategies director at MediaJustice. “We're in a moment where they're looking for technology to 'keep our communities safe.' But we know that these technologies actually put us in further danger by putting us in further contact with the police and military. They are definitely taking advantage of this moment where people are looking for 'alternatives' or more ‘informed’ or ‘accurate’ policing.”
Amazon isn't alone in providing tech for controversial ends; Alphabet, which has its own history of worker revolts over military contracts, is also involved in Project Nimbus. In October 2021, an anonymous group of Amazon and Google workers penned a letter in The Guardian calling on the companies to abandon Project Nimbus. In June 2022, a Google shareholder unsuccessfully put forward a proposal to back out of the contract as well. In a Common Dreams op-ed, Ed Feingus, the proposal’s lead filer wrote “Google has a choice: instead of enabling human rights abuses, it should promote technology that has a positive impact on the world. Google can and should stand on the right side of history by ending Project Nimbus.”
It may very well turn out, however, that Project Nimbus was planned in a way that leaves a narrow window of time to intervene because these contracts are not just about building unethical surveillance tools, but also insulating client governments from political pressure.
The Times of Israel reported that Project Nimbus is laid out in such a way to insulate it from potential boycott actions related to human rights crimes against Palestinians: not only will Google and Amazon be unable to shut down services once operational, but they'll be required to set up local Israeli companies subject to local laws that will be responsible for building and operating the data centers. Beyond this, details about the project are scant. Reuters reported there will be four phases for this project: acquiring and building cloud infrastructure, planning government policy for migrating data to the cloud infrastructure, integrating and migrating to the cloud, then controlling and optimizing cloud operations.
"There's very little transparency, not just to the public but to its own workers. We've spoken to Google and Amazon workers who have no idea what the project is because it's very secretive," Lau Barrios, Campaign Manager at MPower Change, co-organizers of the #NoTechForApartheid campaign, told Motherboard. "That is an intense concern to us because we don't know where they are in the project, but we do know they're going to be building cloud infrastructure for the Israeli government including agencies like the Israeli Land Authority which is currently facilitating a lot of displacement of Palestinians and the building of settlements in the West Bank."
"These customers are coming to AWS summit to learn about all the magic and power of Amazon's technology, but they're not going to hear about how this technology is being used to deport people, to incarcerate people, to criminalize people. And so we're here basically to disrupt business as usual, and really expose Amazon for the company it is,” Hayes added.
Amazon did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed quotes from #NotTechForApartheid activists. Motherboard regrets the error.