A Cloudy Forecast for Pentagon Data

Giving one company — Amazon — a huge, multi-year contract to control the Pentagon’s IT systems makes no sense

On the sitcom “Seinfeld,” the character Newman once explained that “when you control the mail, you control information.” That may have been true in the 1990s.

But in this century, mail is irrelevant. Information moves at the speed of light, and it is stored in the cloud. Today, when you control information, you control information. And Amazon.com may be about to control virtually all of the information our military generates.

That’s because the Seattle giant is the leading contender to land a massive, multi-year, multi-billion dollar contract to handle all of the Pentagon’s cloud computing needs. The project is known as Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) and, on one level it makes sense. Of course the military should be using the cloud instead of storing all its data on mainframes.

What doesn’t make much sense is giving the entire contract to one company, and locking that in for years to come.

The website Fast Company understands the high-tech economy as well as any publication. It has concerns about this potential deal. “Given the contract’s size, awarding it to a single provider will give that company a significant advantage in the market,” the publication warns.

“Amazon, which is already the market leader in the space, in part because the company already hosts some of the country’s most classified data, will only increase its clout.” Amazon could control the weapons, personnel and procurement data for the entire military.

Luckily, under pressure from lawmakers and concerned citizens, the Pentagon has slowed the search process for a new cloud provider. “We’re doing things differently,” spokesman Dana White says. She adds that instead of a ten-year exclusive contract, the winning bidder will enjoy a two-year exclusive contract.

Oh.

But that’s still a problem. It should concern all Americans if all their military information is to be controlled by one company for even two years. How could other companies hope to compete? Another question is equally important: What if employees of Amazon revolt, and demand that their employer get out of the military space?

This happens at high-tech firms.

Under pressure from its employees, Google recently announced it is pulling out of Project Maven, an important artificial intelligence project. Some 4,000 employees urged Google to abandon the project, potentially leaving the Pentagon high and dry.

What will Amazon owner Jeff Bezos do if, in a year or so, Amazon employees send a similar message that they want the company out of the military space? Could the Pentagon compel Amazon to return highly classified data, or give it to another cloud provider?

The questions abound. No private company would operate this way.

Or would that data be destroyed by rogue employees, in an attempt to harm the Pentagon? The questions abound. No private company would operate this way.

“I never heard of something like a single cloud and I would challenge anyone to point at a significant commercial customer who has one cloud,” as Sara Catz, Oracle’s chief executive, put it earlier this year. And that’s exactly right.

The better approach would be to use multiple providers to handle individual chunks of data. By keeping the information segregated in different clouds, we’d be keeping it safer from hackers.

And by encouraging competition among cloud providers, we’d end up with better systems over the life of the contract. Every company would always be working to innovate and grow its slice of the business, and the military would reap those benefits without spending any extra cash.

The best way to protect the military is to protect its information. By all means use the cloud. But please use a number of providers, instead of handing all the information to just one company.

Michael Busler, Ph.D., is a public policy analyst and a professor of finance at Stockton University, where he teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in finance and economics. He has written op-ed columns in major newspapers for more than 35 years.@mbusler www.facebook.com/fundingdemocracy