Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos gave a full-throated defense of providing services to the US military, amid growing concern from employees of American tech companies over military contracts.

As some providers compete for a massive Department of Defense cloud contract - which, perhaps not coincidentally, Amazon Web Services is seen as the likely recipient of - employees from companies like Google and Microsoft have called for the establishment of clear policies for using AI tools built by the tech titans.

Then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gives Jeff Bezos a tour of the Pentagon
Then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter gives Jeff Bezos a tour of the Pentagon in 2016 – DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz

War of words

“If big tech companies are going to turn their back on US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble,” Bezos said at the Wired25 summit.

“We are going to continue to support the DoD and I think we should.”

Last week, Google pulled out of the race for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud project, an up to 10 year, $10bn single-award contract covering most of the military's digital infrastructure needs.

Google noted that it did not have all of the necessary certifications, and that the contract was not compatible with its AI Principles - a policy it created after thousands of employees signed a petition, and dozens quit, when they found out Google Cloud secretly worked with the military on image recognition technology for drones.

This week, an open letter published by Microsoft employees said that the company should not work on tools that will "be used for waging war." Microsoft appears committed to bidding for JEDI, however.

“It doesn't make any sense to me,” Bezos said of tech companies not pursuing such work. “One of the jobs of the senior leadership team is to make the right decision, even when it's unpopular.”

He added: “I like this country. I know everybody is very conflicted about the current politics and so on - this country is a gem. It is amazing, it's still the best place in the world.”

Bezos also touched on immigration: “There aren't other countries where everybody is trying to get in. I'd let them in if it were me. I like 'em, I want all of them in. But this is a great country and it does need to be defended.”

The issue of immigration is a contentious one for Amazon, which sells a facial recognition product, Rekognition, to police departments, and hosts the controversial surveillance company Palantir on AWS. Palantir provides the software for much of the tracking and deportation systems used by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

In yet another open letter, an anonymous Amazon employee (identity verified by Medium) said that more 450 employees had signed a petition against Rekognition and Palantir, and delivered it to Jeff Bezos and other executives.

"Amazon is designing, marketing, and selling a system for dangerous mass surveillance right now. Amazon’s website brags of the system’s ability to store and search tens of millions of faces at a time," the letter said.

"The current political environment makes the idea of selling facial recognition products to the government even more objectionable. Police have stepped up spying on black activists, and the Trump administration is continuing its all-out assault on immigrants. Supercharging surveillance is not something we want to contribute to in any way."

The Rekognition system has also been criticized for its lack of accuracy, and the fact that AI can compound existing biases.

In a study, the American Civil Liberties Union used Rekognition to match photos of 28 members of Congress with publicly available mug shots. "Nearly 40 percent of Rekognition’s false matches in our test were of people of color, even though they make up only 20 percent of Congress," ACLU attorney Jacob Snow said. “People of color are already disproportionately harmed by police practices, and it’s easy to see how Rekognition could exacerbate that."

Green Origin

Amazon's attempts to court the US government, from JEDI, to Rekognition, to hosting the CIA's cloud, are part of a wider effort by Jeff Bezos to deepen his ties with the state.

In September, the world's richest man donated $10m (£7.8m) to With Honor, an independent political action group (super PAC) focused on electing military veterans.

This month, Bezos' rocket company Blue Origin announced it would join Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems and United Launch Services (ULS) in bringing US Air Force payloads into orbit. "We are proud to serve the national security space community," Bezos said of his company's $500 million defense contract.