The New Gatekeepers

The ties between Silicon Valley and the military run deep

June 8, 2018

In a high-profile move last week, Google said it will stop work on something called Project Maven at the end of the current contract, after a number of its employees complained about it, started a petition and even resigned in protest. Project Maven is designed to use Google’s artificial intelligence expertise to help the US military get better at recognizing targets for military drones, which some see as a contradiction for a company whose unofficial motto used to be “Don’t be evil.”

As inspiring as Google’s backpedaling from that project might be, however—or the company’s statement that its artificial intelligence skills won’t be used for weapons that target human beings or for surveillance that violates human rights—the reality is that Project Maven is only the tip of a rather large iceberg when it comes to Google’s ties to the US government, not to mention the ties of other Silicon Valley giants. Why? Because the government has money, especially for defense, and everyone wants some.

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Google has had ties to the Department of Defense for some time: Former chairman Eric Schmidt, also a board member of parent company Alphabet, sits on a Pentagon advisory board, and so does a Google vice president named Milo Medin. Author Yasha Levine says the company has been selling customized versions of its software to US intelligence agencies since 2003, and ramped up after Google bought Keyhole, a CIA-backed project that became Google Earth. And the early research that led to the creation of the Google search engine itself was funded by two key defense-related grants.

Other tech companies also see the military and government as a key source of new revenue: As a story broken by the ACLU recently pointed out, Amazon has been pitching its Rekognition facial-recognition software to police forces and intelligence agencies for some time. Microsoft also boasts about the amount of work it has done with various branches of the US military.

Even though Google CEO Sundar Pichai promised the company wouldn’t actively work on technology partnerships that involve human targeting, he stopped short of saying Google wouldn’t work with the military at all, and that’s because—just like every other major tech company in the Valley—it is hoping to get a piece of something called the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure or JEDI, a contract for cloud services that could be worth as much as $10 billion and is expected to be awarded in September.

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Some analysts believe Amazon may have the inside track on the JEDI contract because it has already won several contracts for similar services with government, including the CIA, where it offers what amounts to a top-secret version of its cloud services. But others believe Amazon might not be a shoe-in for the contract in part because the company has become a routine target for President Trump, who seems to dislike its approach to taxes and the fact that the Washington Post—owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos—writes so many negative news stories about him.

Some at Google may see Trump’s Amazon bashing as an opportunity for the company to win a lucrative contract like JEDI, but defense-industry analysts say turning down more work on Project Maven isn’t going to help the search giant make the case that it should be the one who gets the nod. Not being evil seems like a great idea, but it can sure get in the way of grabbing a share of that juicy government spending. Maybe that’s why Google took that phrase out of its latest code of conduct.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.