You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Tech’s Military Dilemma

Silicon Valley’s emerging role in America’s forever war

Illustration by Adam Maida

On April 3, President Donald Trump sat down to a private dinner with some close associates, including Peter Thiel, his most loyal supporter in Silicon Valley. Thiel had brought Safra Catz, the co-CEO of Oracle, along to discuss a $10 billion Department of Defense contract to build the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, a cloud computing platform that will eventually run much of the Pentagon’s digital infrastructure—from data storage to image analytics to the translation of intercepted phone calls. According to Bloomberg News, Catz objected to the DOD’s plan to award the entire JEDI contract to a single organization, rather than parceling it out to multiple contractors. Oracle, Microsoft, and IBM were all bidding, but Amazon, Catz said, with its massive cloud services business, had an unfair advantage. (Trump, in a rare display of restraint, reportedly said he wanted to ensure a fair competition but went no further.)

JEDI plays a significant part in the Pentagon’s strategy to ensure that its war-waging capabilities keep pace with technological change, and Amazon is probably best positioned to build it. The company’s web services division (AWS), officially founded in 2006, grew out of a project hatched by two of its employees, Benjamin Black and Chris Pinkham, to use Amazon’s growing resources to provide technical infrastructure to anyone who might want it—whether a retailer selling their wares through Amazon’s platform or someone starting a new company. The initial product, called EC2, helped Amazon launch an entirely new industry, broadly called cloud computing but encompassing a range of services, including data storage, analytics, machine learning, and other tools. While Amazon’s vaunted retail business frequently lost money over the last decade, AWS has been one of its most reliably profitable divisions, bringing in $5.4 billion in revenue in the first quarter of 2018.

Microsoft, Google, and others eventually started their own cloud computing divisions. But as the competition over JEDI shows, the desire to challenge AWS has led major technology firms into the national security complex, with promises to analyze imagery for drone strikes and to run communications links for soldiers fighting in the Middle East and North Africa. As these companies move into military work, their claims about the benevolent role that technology can play in modern society—already damaged by scandals ranging from Uber’s labor exploitation to Facebook’s electoral mismanagement—are running squarely up against the realities of their profit motive.

In truth, government and the technology industry have always been partners. Some companies, like IBM, have relationships with the military that extend back to World War II. The development of the early internet owes much to resources provided by the Pentagon’s advanced research division, an agency founded in 1958 to counter Soviet expansion into space. Later, during the Cold War, microchips developed by industry pioneers like Fairchild Semiconductor found their way into ballistic missiles. Even Stanford University’s rise as an engineering and entrepreneurial powerhouse depended heavily on millions of dollars in government funding for high-tech research (a relationship that became controversial during the Vietnam War).

More recently, Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaks revealed the tech industry’s complicity in the National Security Agency’s global surveillance operation. Major companies had complied with—and profited from—government demands for unwarranted data collection. In one telling detail made public by Snowden, Americans learned that even as the NSA was making secret deals with Yahoo and other companies to access customer information, the intelligence community was hacking into those same companies and collecting personal data.

With the exception of a few notable court challenges to government subpoenas, the Snowden leaks did little to change the industry’s close relationship with the military. Silicon Valley executives like Eric Schmidt still sit on Pentagon advisory boards, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos entertains strategically important heads of state like Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Despite Mark Zuckerberg’s ritual shaming before a congressional committee this past spring, the quasi-governmental reach of these companies remains self-evident.

Take Palantir, perhaps this era’s paradigmatic tech company, if not also its most controversial. Established in 2004 by Peter Thiel—Trump dinner companion, PayPal co-founder, Facebook board member, and slayer of Gawker Media—Palantir organizes and parses vast amounts of data for corporate and government clients, particularly in the defense and intelligence communities. Considered one of the country’s most valuable privately held startups, Palantir was initially funded partly by In-Q-Tel, the CIA’s venture capital arm. This government pedigree has ensured that its products are as popular in Washington as they are in Kabul, where they’re used to track the locations of improvised explosive devices.

Palantir’s lucrative government contracting business is perhaps more overt than some of the other tech giants’, but it’s far from an outlier. Amazon, whose AWS division provides the digital infrastructure for everything from NASA to Netflix, is already the official cloud-computing provider of the CIA. Even before it began competing for JEDI, the company provided similar services to the Defense Department and other government agencies as a subcontractor. Microsoft’s operating systems power millions of DOD devices; in 2016, it earned a $927 million information technology and consulting contract from the department, and in May it announced a deal to provide its Azure Government cloud service to the 17 U.S. intelligence agencies. Google has dipped into government contracting, too, though not without internal resistance. This spring, more than 3,000 Google employees signed a letter of protest, and roughly a dozen resigned, in response to the company’s participation in Project Maven, which provides image analysis technology used in drone strikes to the Air Force. (Google announced in June that it would not renew the contract.)

Meanwhile, Amazon has attracted a great deal of scrutiny for its enduring march toward retail monopoly, but in reality, the company’s future now rests as much in securing the top-secret data of CIA activities as it does in delivering groceries—a spectacular broadening of its reach, which ought to bring up questions about whether Amazon’s market share buys it the same leverage in the federal government as it does in the retail economy.

It should perhaps come as no surprise that the government, for its part, would seek out the data and expertise of Big Tech. (Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter held regular meetings with Silicon Valley VIPs while serving in the Obama administration.) Only the large firms have the capacity to build and manage the secure databases and sophisticated computer networks that governmental bureaucracies need to operate. And these companies, in collecting so much user data, present a tempting opportunity for intelligence agencies looking to expand the scope of their mass surveillance; the NSA and others want the same data these companies collect in the normal course of business. But that doesn’t mean that the technology companies are obliged to respond to the call for government cooperation, nor do they necessarily need to rush willingly into the defense industry.

Much has changed since the first ties between the government and technology companies were forged during World War II. Today’s tech giants have immense influence over everything from social media to restaurant reviews, autonomous vehicles to health care. They are some of America’s most valuable, and often most admired, companies, with interests deeply intertwined with the global economy. And while contracts like JEDI may comprise a growing share of their profits, the government probably needs tech firms more than they need the government. Because the DOD and others rely so heavily on their tools, they could, in theory, resist invasive data requests. They have the power, and the ethical obligation, to decide what kind of companies they want to be and, increasingly, to help decide what sort of country the United States should be.

That, ultimately, is why the fight to win the JEDI contract represents something larger than the profit margins and stock prices of Silicon Valley firms: It is a crossroads at which tech companies will be forced to choose whether they can feasibly continue to preach the values of liberal-minded innovation and independence from big government while serving as its well-paid and compliant partners. It may be unrealistic to expect large, profit-seeking corporations—the Everything Store exists to create loyal consumers, after all—to decline work that’s both wildly remunerative and earns them outsize influence with the very entities that wield the power to regulate them. But it is fair to expect that these companies would act with the ethical standards they so proudly claim to uphold. In recent years, monopolistic tech giants have reaped fantastic gains in efficiency and cost savings, often at the expense of individual privacy and labor rights. To add “war profiteer” to that list would only further diminish an industry that, with equal parts naïveté and swagger, has so often failed at trying to do good.