Opinion

Paul: On Dublin, Amazon, and the "Secret Region"

On a quiet, rundown industrial estate in Tallaght, across the road from a martial arts training centre and a local mosque, sits a large, modern windowless building. It has black fencing around it.

Signs show the logo of the international security company G4S. They also warn that the building is under 24-hour live surveillance and is monitored by CCTV. Gardaí will be notified, the signs also say.

Aside from service vehicles for engineering companies in the car park, there is no visual evidence of who owns the building or its purpose. For that, curious people have to search the planning section of South Dublin County Council’s website.

They will also find mention of this building in Tallaght elsewhere online – on the whistleblower website Wikileaks.

This building in the Hibernian Industrial Estate on Greenhills Road, Tallaght, Dublin 24, is a data centre operated by Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS is a subsidiary of Amazon.com Inc, the “everything store” founded in 1994 by Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest person in the world. If you have ever bought books, household electronics or almost anything else online, there is a good chance you have used Amazon.

Last month, Wikileaks published a list of AWS data centres around the world, including this one. So why exactly is there an AWS data centre in a quite rundown industrial estate in Dublin 24, and why is it of interest to Wikileaks?

Meet AWS

AWS was first launched in 2006. Its main service is to provide scalable and inexpensive cloud computing services such as storage and computing power to individuals, companies and governments.

Customers include Adobe, Airbnb, AOL, Ryanair, Netflix, Twenty First Century Fox, and many others, including the Dublin Inquirer. AWS accounts for almost 40 percent of the public cloud-computing market. Last year, it generated profits of over €15 billion.

It operates in various countries worldwide, including the United States, Brazil, India, and the United Kingdom (it’s expected to expand in Sweden, South Africa and Bahrain), which it breaks down into what it refers to as “regions”.

Each of these regions is made up of different “availability zones” (AZs), clusters of AWS data centres built near to one another to ensure their services remain both fast and stable.

Ireland is an AWS region, referred to in Amazonspeak as “EU-West-1”. It has three different AZs, all in Dublin. There’s the Tallaght one. There’s also one in Clonshaugh Business Park in North County Dublin and another in Blanchardstown Business Park.

Across the road from the one in Greenhills Road in Tallaght, beside the martial arts centre and mosque, another AWS data centre is being built. Behind that development lies another one.

Nearby, on Airton Road, there is another data centre – and yet another is now being developed alongside it.

Photo by Paul O'Neill

###Secrecy and Security

Where these AZs are built isn’t coincidental. Today, there are 48 operational data centres in Ireland. The majority of them are located in industrial estates and business parks in Dublin, all within close proximity to the T50 fibre-optic cable network that runs alongside the M50 motorway, from Clonshaugh to Kilcarberry in Clondalkin.

Many data centres prefer to keep their locations discreet, although as artist and journalist Ingrid Burrington points out, “hyperscale” ones – such as those operated by Google and Facebook – do have public profiles.

The walls of the Google data centre in Grangecastle, Clondalkin have a colourful mural by a local artist. The new Facebook data centre in Clonee in Co. Meath has its own verified public Facebook page. AWS, on the other hand, operates quietly and discreetly.

I have gone out to look at the AWS data centres in Tallaght three times. Each time, I have been told not to take photos of the building by G4S security guards. I was standing on a public road.

Furthermore, the security guards would not say who owns the building, or what was inside. Even though there are planning permission notices on the fences of three of the buildings.

A spokesperson for AWS did not reply to my queries on why I wasn’t allowed to take photos, and why security guards wouldn’t answer my questions about what was going on in the buildings.

Why all this secrecy? One reason is that AWS doesn’t just work with companies such as Airbnb or Ryanair. It also services governments. Including, the US government.

GovCloud and the Secret Region

AWS facilitates a region called “GovCloud”, which is used by various US government agencies and their customers to host sensitive data.

Last year, it announced an “AWS Secret Region”, which works specifically with US intelligence services to store and access information across all classification levels – up to and including “top secret”.

AWS was criticised recently by the American Civil Liberties Union for selling its facial-recognition technology, “Rekognition”, to different law-enforcement agencies.

AWS/Amazon is also believed to be in the running for a $10 billion contract for the US Department of Defence’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project, which will see the Pentagon moving completely into the “cloud”.

Turning a Blind Eye

After the 11 September attacks in 2001, Shannon airport saw an influx of US military planes and personnel. They stopped off to refuel, making Ireland a node in America’s “War on Terror”. Around 2.5 million US troops were transported through the airport between 2002 and 2015. This was in spite of Ireland’s official position of military neutrality.

Whilst it is perhaps a step too far to directly compare the US military with AWS, there are similarities and worrying echoes in the Irish government’s willingness to turn a blind eye to AWS’s operations – particularly within an international context and also in relation to the data that passes through their data centres here.

To be clear, we don’t know what information is being held in the data centres in Ireland, whether AWS’s or others.

An AWS spokesperson said that “AWS GovCloud (US-East) and (US-West) Regions are operated by employees who are U.S. citizens on U.S. soil.” The spokesperson did not respond to my query on whether “Secret Region” data is hosted here.

Even if there is no data from the US or other foreign governments in AWS data centres in Dublin, Ireland has become a significant actor within the international infrastructure of AWS. That comes with responsibilities.

Photo by Paul O'Neill

Complicity

The Irish government’s willingness to turn a blind eye extends to many of the other large tech corporations based here that are involved in, or are responsible for, some of the key issues of our contemporary networked era.

Facebook, which has its European, Middle East and African (EMEA) headquarters in Dublin, and, as mentioned earlier, operates a data centre in Clonee, is continuously embroiled in controversies. Most visibly, the Cambridge Analytical scandal and various security breaches, including the one from last September that affected the accounts of nearly 30 million users.

“Don’t be evil”, the former motto of Google, which also has its EMEA headquarters in Dublin, can only be read with cynicism when we look at that company’s record in relation to privacy, censorship, and tax avoidance.

As a state, Ireland must ask difficult questions of these corporations. Especially when we hear of malpractice beyond our shores.

What decisions are being made in the conference rooms of “Silicon Docks” that directly or indirectly impact on the controversial policies and practices of these tech corporations? What procedures are in place to monitor them? What accountability is there for these companies within the national context?

But the Irish government does not seem interested in asking these questions.

“[C]ontinued investment in Ireland and expansion of its services here by Amazon Web Services is welcome. It is consistent with the Government’s policy objectives for business investment and development, particularly in the context of the digital economy and Ireland’s Strategic Policy Framework for the development of data centres,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Justice.

“The business relationships that AWS has with its clients, whether public or private sector, in Ireland or elsewhere, are matter between the company and its clients,” the spokesperson said.

Dublin, and Ireland, is an important node in the operations of AWS and many other tech corporations. If we do not critically and openly question their operations, both here and abroad, Ireland will remain a complicit and compliant node within the international corporate-tech infrastructure.

Paul O'Neill portrait
Paul O'Neill

Paul O’ Neill is a PhD researcher based in the School of Communications in Dublin City University. His research area(s) focus on tactical media, media archaeology and remix culture within the context of digital/new media arts practice. You can follow him @AsWeMaySink or @CNodeDublin.

 

Comments

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  2. Anonymous commenter
    3 December at 12:03

    Great article Paul! I also encourage you to check out, if you haven't already, Mark Curran's photographic research project called 'The Breathing Factory' as well as Mark's on-going work called 'The Market' https://themarket.blog/. You are, as you know, perfectly entitled to photograph the building when on public property. I have had similar issues in the Docklands but once you're on public property G4S have no jurisdiction there.

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