Google, Amazon, And Microsoft Are Using Third Party Companies To Sell Surveillance Tech To ICE, CBP

from the same-as-it-ever-was dept

A few years ago, tech companies stood up to the US government, issuing statements objecting to immigration policies instituted by the Trump Administration and, in some cases, threatening to pull contracts with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and the CBP (Customs and Border Protection).

It wasn't much of a stand, however. And whatever statements were issued by companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon were mainly prompted by hundreds of employees who wished to work for companies that didn't aid and abet in civil liberties violations, and ongoing mistreatment of immigrants and their families.

Whatever statements came out of the front end of these companies haven't been matched by the backend. According to a new report by Caroline Haskins for Business Insider, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon are still selling plenty of tech and software to ICE and CBP. They're just getting better at hiding it. (Alt link)

Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have repeatedly used a common tactic to sidestep public scrutiny and work with US immigration agencies, despite employee backlash and some company policies against doing such work.

This tactic, in which the companies use third parties or act as subcontractors to sell their technology, has helped these tech giants quietly secure dozens of cloud contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, Insider has found.

The products provided range from innocuous bundling of office software to analytics and APIs that are integral parts of surveillance systems. The use of third party resellers keeps these companies' names from appearing in federal contracts, as well as allows them to sidestep internal protests and internal policies. Google, for instance, assured irate employees it would not assist the federal government with border surveillance. But use of third party contractors allows it to bypass the promises it made.

So much for taking a stand:

From 2015 to 2021, Amazon used third parties to sell its cloud services at least 16 times to ICE and CBP. Google used third parties to sell various cloud and professional tools at least 28 times to these agencies. Microsoft used third parties to sell its cloud services and software more than 200 times to immigration agencies from 2002 to 2021, in addition to selling to ICE and CBP directly more than 100 times.

Having briefly implied the status quo of selling to ICE and CBP was unacceptable, these companies quietly maintained the status quo by selling products via companies with far less-recognizable names like Panamerica Computers, Inc., Four Points Technology, LLC, and Systems Engineering Solutions.

And, while this reselling may not have been happening directly under these companies' noses, it's unlikely they were completely unaware the middlemen were securing contracts with these agencies to do the sorts of things company officials claimed they would no longer do. At best, there was an indifferent blindness. Contracts were signed with these companies and paper trails should have alerted them that their third-party partners were delivering tech to federal agencies. Employees spoken to by Haskins confirmed it's all but impossible to remain unaware of what third party partners are doing with tech and software because of this.

These companies haven't denied their indirect involvement in CBP and ICE border surveillance activities. But they also haven't denied any knowledge of this use of their products. "No comment" across the board.

The surveillance business is still booming, and ICE wants more of it. It has $300 million to spend on a new system it calls RAVEn (Repository for Analytics in a Virtualized Environment) -- one that will allow it to mine hundreds of thousands of documents for data in order to find people who aren't authorized to work in the United States. All three companies are likely to get a piece of that $300 million, at least indirectly.

People who attended the April industry-day event told Insider that companies like Amazon, Google, and Microsoft would probably use intermediaries rather than bid on the contracts directly.

Google "typically will not pursue as a prime on non-cloud opportunities because of the potential conflicts of interest with ALL the other companies they work with," a person who attended the industry day told Insider. "Google will only sub and they will be non-exclusive."

"AWS, MSFT and Google typically sell through their reseller partners," another person who attended the industry day told Insider.

Showing solidarity with employees doesn't mean much if you're willing to let intermediaries do the dirty work for you. The end result is identical. The only difference is it keeps Amazon's, Google's, and Microsoft's names out of the news whenever a new form of pervasive surveillance starts making the wrong kind of headlines.

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Filed Under: cbp, ice, shell companies, surveillance
Companies: amazon, google, microsoft

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  1. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 13 Oct 2021 @ 3:52pm

    "have repeatedly used a common tactic to sidestep public scrutiny and work with US immigration agencies, despite employee backlash and some company policies against doing such work."

    So they took a page from the parallel construction playbook the government uses to hide their sins.

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