Last week, journalists were made aware of troubling job postings on Amazon’s website. One posting called for an “Intelligence Analyst” to work with Amazon’s Global Intelligence Program, based just outside Phoenix, Arizona.
"Analysts must be capable of engaging and informing L7+ ER Principals (attorney stakeholders) on sensitive topics that are highly confidential, including labor organizing threats against the company, establish and track funding and activities connected to corporate campaigns (internal and external) against Amazon, and provide sophisticated analysis on these topics," the listing read.
While working America struggles with the pandemic and increasing economic precarity, Amazon put out a notice that it was looking for someone to make things even tougher on their workers.
Most people who pay attention to workers’ rights issues are aware of this dynamic. Big companies make a point of spying on their workers as a means to neutralize union threats. However, what seems to have shocked the media on this occasion is how openly Amazon has admitted its goal.
🧐— Joe Slowik 📌 (@jfslowik) September 1, 2020
Spot the huge, glaring, "OMG did they really spell that out???" problem here: pic.twitter.com/GsQhJDgA66
L7 referred to the seventh rung of Amazon’s corporate ladder, on which Jeff Bezos is L12. ER stands for employee relations, Amazon’s version of human resources. Thus, the job’s stated purview is informing mid-to-high level Amazon human resources management about union activity (among other things), so that such activity can be dealt with before it becomes a threat to Amazon’s bottom line.
Amazon's surveillance network
This public posting is the latest escalation in Amazon’s spying campaign against its workers. Already this week, multiple stories broke about Amazon snooping on their staff members’ social media pages. According to Vice, the company has been using a monitoring tool to compile reports on drivers' online posts. The tool assigned these messages to categories, such as complaints about "poor working conditions," links to negative media coverage, being approached by researchers for academic studies, or "planning for any strike or protest against Amazon."
This strategy went into practice as Amazon warehouse workers and delivery drivers all over the world organized to improve working conditions under COVID. Over the last few months, strikes and protests against Amazon have broken out in Spain, Italy, California, Minnesota, Illinois, and New York. In response, the company has fired at least five workers for organizing and attempted to shut down a virtual event meant for warehouse workers to air their grievances.
But who exactly is carrying out this spying operation? The recent posting gives us a keyhole view.
The post gestures to an extensive network, an organization made up of analysts, lawyers, L7+ employee resources managers, L6-10 “stakeholders” (managers, directors, and strategic partners), and low-level “loss prevention” workers (security guards). Many of them report in some way to a Global Security Operations (GSO) or Global Intelligence Program (GIP). This operation’s growth is reflected in Amazon’s growing number of job titles with “GSO” or “GIP” in the description.
From just 7 posts featuring the terms “GSO” or “GIP” in July of 2018, that number has ballooned to 46 at the time of writing. This only accounts for Amazon’s actual online postings, and it should be assumed many more people fill such posts each time they are announced. Additionally, these job figures do not account for the team of Amazon engineers who have recently “integrated security cameras with sophisticated artificial intelligence” to monitor and track employee movements. Video surveillance, anti-union messaging, and internal corporate espionage are all being expanded. Top this all off with demeaning physical spot checks at the end of the day, where “loss prevention” coordinators search warehouse employees to make sure they aren’t stealing goods - an invasive process that often extends the workday.
An August report by Open Markets claimed that “Veterans of the security industry are astonished by the extent of Amazon’s practices. One retail security veteran stated he had ‘never heard of anything’ quite like Amazon’s practices.” That veteran hasn’t done his research on the security practices of 19th-century robber barons. Amazon’s process is strikingly similar to how mining companies hired Pinkertons and goon squads to surveil their workers, forcing their miners to shower out in the open and submit to invasive searches. All of this to make sure they weren’t stealing pieces of gold or carrying labor-friendly messaging.
Crucially, the Pinkertons didn’t have the use of computers. They could have only dreamed of the tech Amazon is putting into practice against its workers. We should remember that - among other monitoring techniques - Whole Foods has built a ‘heat map’ tool specifically for tracking unionization threats, as Business Insider reported in April. Amazon, having already revolutionized workplace surveillance, continues to grow its network in all manner of ways.
The history of the Amazon "Intelligence Analyst"
Thinknum’s job postings dataset, which catalogs old job postings even after they are taken down or edited, provides some interesting context for the Intelligence Analyst position. Our records show that the first time the explicitly anti-labor job posting went live was March 24, 2020, when a paragraph was added that references the threat of “organized labor,” “activist groups,” and “hostile political leaders.” Of course, March 24 was right as panic over the COVID crisis was spreading, and businesses were coming to terms with a lockdown. At this crucial time, Amazon was explicitly looking to curtail its union threats through intelligence.
Another 2020 job posting for a “Senior Intelligence Analyst” called for an individual to “compile and provide assessments for use in court filings, up to and including restraining orders against activist groups.” While Amazon removed the posting this week and claimed it went against their standards, it has been up for months. Of course, Amazon’s real issue with the posting was the media backlash it provoked.
Amazon had posted similar positions before the post in question went live, going back to 2018 at least. They also make reference to “hostile political leaders.” This almost surely refers to domestic leaders, as politicians like Senator Bernie Sanders, who in 2018 bullied Amazon into paying workers a minimum of $15 an hour, loom large in Amazon’s collective conscience.
“The Intelligence Analyst (Watch Officer) role will support Amazon’s operational customers and leadership through providing 24x7 by 365 geopolitical analysis and contextualization of potential impact to Amazon’s operations.” - 2019 Amazon Job Posting
An interesting difference: In 2018 and 2019, the critical phrase “Watch Officer” appears in multiple previous postings for the “Intelligence Analyst.” This can clue us in onto what type of work intelligent analysts have been doing, and what fields they are being recruited from.
Watch Officer is a term common in the US intelligence community, referring to an agent that gathers and reports information about the activities of domestic groups and the governments of foreign countries to protect the interests and security of the United States. Amazon’s use of this spook terminology makes sense, given that big companies like Amazon (and Google and Coca Cola and Walmart) tend to hire government-trained agents for their corporate intelligence roles. It’s an open call for people who worked with the FBI (which has put AWS in charge of three data centers and is piloting Amazon’s Rekognition facial matching program), CIA (which has contracted Amazon to build secure cloud storage), US Army Intelligence, and other intelligence organizations to use their skills against Amazon workers.
Amazon dropped “Watch Officer” from its wording in early 2020, perhaps realizing the connotation. But to see how intertwined Amazon remains with government spies, you can simply scroll this list on LinkedIn and click any profile. Picking at random, we find a lead manager of Amazon’s Global Security Operations Center named Nathan Nguyen. Nguyen’s previous work experience was in the US Army as a Sr. Intelligence Analyst, where he was tasked to “mobilize, deploy, and support multiple government agencies in high-threat environments.”
Appreciating these qualities, Amazon hired him way back in 2013. Among other things, Ngyuen claims to have used his Army experience to help design how Amazon’s GSO Center functioned.
While this increasingly hostile and government-sponsored work environment has drawn scrutiny from the National Labor Relations Board and other regulatory groups, the wheels of justice turn slowly. Cases are slowly reviewed, while Amazon continues to target its workers with an increasingly advanced operation.
Amazon will most likely respond to this round of media outrage by cleaning up its language. As the company dropped “Watch Officer” from its lexicon, so will it find defter ways to bring more intelligence analysts into the fold and build out spying operations. Sometimes a different title makes all the difference to the media, but that doesn’t change the fact that Amazon is chock-full of spies. They’ve been collecting them for years.
God forbid Amazon’s essential workers even try to push back against their boss’s excesses. Bezos has gone long on crushing them through surveillance, directing resources to tech-assisted, government-trained union busting rather than give in to any demand, no matter how small. Based on the costs of that investment, he obviously thinks this is a fight he will win.
Workers’ advocacy organizations have been sounding the alarm for years - and should continue to. Athena, a coalition of groups that organize against Amazon’s excesses, denounced the practices in a statement:
“Let’s not wait to see how Amazon will attempt to subvert our democracy next. Public officials must start reining in Amazon’s power now. And since Monday is Labor Day, let’s remember that Pinkertons and ‘goon squads’ didn’t stop communities around coal mines or auto plants or sugar plantations from organizing for real democracy in past centuries - and these 'intelligence analysts' won’t stop us now."
About the Data:
Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.