funny thing has happened to Google and Amazon on
their path toward high-tech success: They have become crucial cogs
in the U.S. national security establishment.
companies are expanding teams of employees with security
clearances to work on projects that include deploying artificial
intelligence and building digital “clouds” to offering law
enforcement facial recognition tools that can even read the mood
of people caught on camera.
security establishment’s embrace of Big Tech has ruffled the
feathers of traditional defense contractors and roiled employee
ranks, in Google’s case, over whether the company is being drawn
into what disguntled employees called "the business of war."
industry analysts say the Pentagon views Big Tech, and
particularly Google with its deep bench of artificial intelligence
researchers, as vital to the nation’s future safety.
are becoming a critical part of national security, without
question,” said Alexander
Rossino, a senior principal research analyst at Deltek,
a Herndon, Virginia, firm that offers software and services to
some ways, the evolution of companies born to disrupt the status
quo into business giants with a broad array of clients, including
the security establishment, is a result of the profits to be made
doing business with the federal government.
Pentagon currently is testing a customized Google AI surveillance
engine that sifts through massive amounts of footage from tactical
drones to produce what it calls “actionable
intelligence and insights at speed.” The
tests are under way at six locations in Africa and the Middle
East. Such drone footage has been used in the past to target and
kill ISIS extremists.
pilot, known as Project Maven, spurred nearly 4,000 of Google’s
88,000 employees to sign
a petition in April demanding that the
project be cancelled because it would “irreparably damage Google’s
brand.” The petition added: “Building this technology to assist
the U.S. government in military surveillance – and potentially
lethal outcomes – is not acceptable.”
internal protest about Project Maven appeared to be taking a toll.
The tech website Gizmodo, citing three unnamed sources, reported
Friday afternoon that a Google executive
told employees earlier in the day that the backlash over Project
Maven had been severe and that the company would not pursue
further artificial intelligence work with the Pentagon.
declined to answer questions about Project Maven, and a
spokeswoman for the Mountain View, Calif., company did not answer
broader queries about the company’s activities in the national
most of its life, Google operated with the motto "Don't be evil."
That motto, which once
introduced its Code of Conduct, was pushed down to the very
end of the lengthy document in a version
updated April 5.
zigzagging over whether to pursue ties with the Pentagon has
unfolded since then.
company’s former chief executive, Eric E. Schmidt, told a House
panel April 17 that Google
should move ahead on Project Maven even as
it sorts out qualms and works to create a set of principles over
how artificial intelligence can be deployed for defensive, and
perhaps offensive, purposes.
said the Pentagon “must … create a foundation for similar projects
to flourish.” Schmidt has clout both with Google parent Alphabet
Inc., where he
serves on the board, and as chair
of the Defense Innovation Board, an advisory group to the
secretary of defense.
Pentagon began its outreach to high tech companies under former
Defense Secretary Ash Carter, a theoretical physicist who set up a
Pentagon outpost in Silicon Valley in 2015 to help the military
speed up adoption of high-tech innovations. Current Defense
Secretary Jim Mattis visited both Google and Amazon last August,
and pledged to expand the experimental defense outpost in Mountain
View, in the heart of Silicon Valley.
its part, Amazon
Web Services, a subsidiary of the Seattle-based e-commerce
giant, runs a secret “cloud” for the CIA that allows the agency to
share top secret information with other parts of the intelligence
community. It won the $600 million contract in 2013.
even bigger project is in the offing: Amazon Web Services is a
frontrunner to build a massive secure cloud for the Defense
Department that some analysts say could rise toward $10 billion
over coming years. Google, Microsoft and more traditional defense
contractors like General Dynamics are also expected to bid for the
information technology, or IT, project, which has the futuristic
the world’s largest IT procurement ever. … You show me some other
IT contract for $10 billion,” said John Weiler, managing director
of a think tank on governmental technology purchases known as the IT
Acquisition Advisory Council.
contrast to Google, where hand-wringing over the direction of the
company has spilled into public view, Amazon has not hidden its
ambitions to lock up national security business, arriving in
Washington with elbows swinging at traditional defense
is saying, ‘I’m taking you guys all on, and double middle fingers
to you all,’” Weiler said.
chief executive of Amazon Web Services, Andy Jassy, told
CNBC in early May thattraditional
contractors resented Big Tech companies for competing against them
on the JEDI cloud contract.
has been a lot of noise from some of the older guard suppliers who
are worried about losing some business, but our government
deserves the best technology, the most capabilities, innovations,
and best cost structure -- especially at this time,” Jassy said.
division is a rising star at Amazon, reporting $5.4 billion
revenue in the first quarter of 2018, a 49 percent increase year
on year. Its high margins comprise a bulk of Amazon’s overall
contractors "are going to tell you that there is concern that (the
JEDI cloud contract) is being wired for Amazon," said David Myers,
a specialist on information technologies at American
Defense International, a Washington consulting firm for
say the idea of the Pentagon playing favorites is far-fetched.
those who would say the fix is in for Amazon, isn't that the same
company that the president tweets about all the time?" asked
retired Marine Maj.
Gen. Arnold L. Punaro, who is a former chairman of the National
Defense Industrial Association, a nonprofit that draws
members from industry, military, government and academic spheres.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly tweeted his hostility toward
Amazon and its founder, Jeff Bezos, who personally owns the
Washington Post. In early April, Trump in a series of tweets
accused Amazon of taking advantage of the U.S. Postal Service and
of failing to pay a fair share of taxes.
older tech companies have done business with the Pentagon for
decades, including Microsoft, which signed a $927 million contract
in 2016, and IBM.
news of the Google employee petition leaked to the media, another
group calling itself the Tech
Workers Coalition passed around another
petition in Silicon Valley and the Seattle area.
says its technology will only be used to ‘non-offensive’ ends. Our
last few years working in the tech industry has issued reminder
after painful reminder of the unintended outcomes of even benignly
designed tech,” a spokesman for the group, identifying himself
only as William, said in an email.
the drive has not resonated, gathering a
scant 330 signatures at press time.
Web Services is moving into other corners of the national security
arena. It has bought two start-ups spun out of the National
Security Agency, the nation’s secret monitoring and
data-collection arm. In late 2016, Amazon bought a San Diego firm,
harvest.ai, which uses artificial intelligence to detect threats
from disgruntled insiders in companies or to spot intruders
attempting to steal valuable data or customer information
of the three founders of harvest.ai came out of the NSA.
this year, Amazon bought Sqrrl, a Boston-area threat intelligence
company with the logo: “Target. Hunt. Disrupt.” Six of the
company’s seven founders came out of the NSA.
Amazon Web Services is marketing a powerful facial recognition
tool, called Rekognition, that can identify
up to 100 people in a crowd in near real
time, and then analyze factors such as the openness of their eyes,
the slant of their lips and emotions expressed in their cheeks to
judge their sentiment.
Rekognition can detect emotions like happy, sad, or surprised from
facial images,” a
company website says, and by analyzing over time, the tool
can begin “constructing a timeline of the emotions” of a subject.
Web Services has sought to keep a low profile for Rekognition, in
some cases asking potential law enforcement clients to sign
non-disclosure agreements, according to public records requests
filed by the California office of the American Civil Liberties
Orlando Police Department began a pilot program with Rekognition
in December, and testing continues, said Sgt. Eduardo J. Bernal.
During the testing, he said, the department “is not using the
technology in an investigative capacity or utilizing any images of
members of the public.”
Sheriff’s Office of Washington County, Oregon, is also testing the
be sure, the tool can be used for less controversial purposes,
such as identifying terrorist video content or images
inappropriate for children. It can help authorities comb through
video to find fugitives and locate missing people.
Big Tech companies engage in more business in the national
security arena, they may strike up alliances with old guard
defense contractors, analysts said.
coopetition is what they call it in the business here. Yesterday’s
competitor is today’s teammate,” said Rossino, the Deltek analyst.
retired Navy vice admiral who later served as a vice president of
defense and intelligence at IBM, Kevin P. Green, said he expects
major tech companies to understand the stakes when the defense
establishment comes calling for help.
advanced technologies and the new capabilities that they could
provide are absolutely essential to the national security of the
United States,” Green said.
have high expectations that they’ll make the right kinds of
decisions, and I certainly hope that they will continue, as they
have in the past, to support the national security missions of the
United States and our allies,” he added.
Johnson, 202-383-6028, @timjohnson4