Jul 16, 2020

Contracts between Big Tech and the military can fly under the radar

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But new reporting shows Microsoft, Amazon and Google are doing a lot more defense and law enforcement work than perhaps was realized.

Google made a new push for more defense work this week, with an approach to cloud computing it thinks should appeal to government customers. Until now, Google has mostly sat those lucrative contracts out, in part because it’s faced pushback from some employees. Other tech companies have, too. 

But new reporting shows Big Tech is doing a lot more defense and law enforcement work than perhaps was realized. I spoke with Jack Poulson, a former senior research scientist at Google. He left the company in 2018 in protest of Google’s search engine work with China and now runs the nonprofit Tech Inquiry. He’s dug deep into the subcontracts tech companies have with the contractors working with federal agencies. Microsoft leads the way with more than 5,000 subcontracts; Amazon and Google have several hundred each. The overall deals are with agencies like the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Jack Poulson (Photo courtesy Poulson)

Jack Poulson: A lot of what’s going on is what people would call “data fusion at the tactical edge.” What you can do is train machine-learning models to actually flag for you when there’s interesting information. In terms of hardware, it turns out that companies like Nvidia have played a crucial role in accelerating the actual computations via their [graphics processing units] on a lot of drones. Nvidia also sells systems called DGX, which you can think of as supercomputers for deep learning. Numerous agencies in the Department of Defense have bought those several-hundred-thousand-dollar supercomputers from them.

Jack Stewart: We’ve seen employees of tech companies come out and pressure their employers into dropping military contracts and direct contracts with some government agencies. Do these subcontracts go unnoticed?

Poulson: They do, and it’s purposefully obscured. A great example of this is ECS Federal. This drone surveillance AI project Maven, Google contracted through ECS Federal for that. If you actually look at the federal procurement records, there’s no mention of Google. Amazon also has contracted through ECS Federal, with one of its major cloud computing contracts with U.S. Transportation Command. Subcontractors turn out to be critical if you want to get a sense of what many companies are doing. 

Stewart: But still, I feel like we knew that big tech companies were doing defense work. Your work has exposed that they’re doing a lot more than we realized, but what are the implications of that?

Poulson: I would say, more than me trying to argue whether it’s big or not, is to get a quantified measure for various tech companies. There’s two tech Silicon Valley companies that work very closely with the military that get the most attention for this, Palantir and Anduril. What I think people have gotten the wrong idea about is that they’re the ones receiving most of the money in this space. So, really what I’m trying to call attention to is that these bigger, quieter players, they’re actually playing a very serious role, and we can’t let the smaller companies hog up all of the spotlight in terms of what’s actually going on in this area and get everyone to forget about what the other companies are doing.

Related links: More insight from Jack Stewart

For the details on Google’s new push into a cloud service tailored to government buyers, check out Bloomberg’s reporting. It spells out how the new product is designed to meet security requirements using just software protections, rather than a special data center to keep sensitive information separate.

Jack Poulson’s full report is online, too, which says, “Within a substantial list of name brand tech companies, only Facebook, Apple and Twitter look to be staying out of major military and law enforcement contracts.”

Speaking of Microsoft, it has found a new group of customers who are unlikely to have data collection concerns. It formed a partnership with Land O’Lakes, and it will equip cows with sensors and other gear in an effort to improve yields. The cows will wear Fitbit-like devices to record their temperatures and other activity. The sensors are apparently mud- and manure-proof. Land O’Lakes is the country’s third-largest agricultural cooperative, so there’s a lot to gain with even small improvements.

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