SILICON VALLEY, CALIFORNIA — The entire tech industry is currently going through its very own Hunger Games as a host of companies compete for a chance to win two multibillion dollar contracts from the Pentagon. What are the jobs? Develop globally accessible cloud-computing platforms for the Pentagon and military personnel, spanning all levels from unclassified to top secret.
The winners will be awarded the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract worth $10 billion, the Defense Enterprise Office Solution (DEOS) contract worth $8 billion, and the opportunity to work with the Department of Defense for years to come.
In one corner you have long-time DoD favorites like General Dynamics, Microsoft and IBM. In the other corner you have newcomers from Silicon Valley like Amazon and Google.
Ironically enough, while the company heads go toe-to-toe for the multibillion dollar contracts, the workers below them remain united in their fight against the “business of war.”
The Pentagon, for its part, is just upset so much drama is getting in the way of its modernization process.
For civilians, the Pentagon’s fling turned full-fledged engagement with Silicon Valley tech companies is extremely dangerous: kicking the capitalist surveillance state into overdrive. As Karl Rogers writes for The Canary:
Our phone is like George Orwell’s Big Brother. Except we all volunteer our information to it. You give your consent every time you scroll through a service or user agreement and click your assent to the terms and conditions. You have given your data to the company. It now belongs to them. The companies track, package, and sell your movements, preferences, and consumer choices. We have entered the era of surveillance capitalism.”
For JEDI, one lone winner will develop a massive, customized, and global cloud storage platform for virtually all of the Pentagon’s digital dirty work. According to research firm Deltek, the DoD doled out $2.3 billion in cloud-computing contracts in fiscal year 2017. Analysts expected that number to rise 20 percent year-over-year to as much $6 billion in annual cloud spending across all federal government agencies.
However, Deltek crunched those numbers before the Pentagon announced the JEDI race and the cloud modernization push which raised that ceiling to at least $8 billion. Although JEDI and DEOS are not the first of their kind, they’re certainly the largest in history and indicate the Pentagon’s growing relationship with Silicon Valley.
With JEDI, the U.S. Defense Department is finally going digital and ditching antiquated technology which, amazingly enough, the entire department still relies on to conduct its war business. JEDI and DEOS will allow the DoD to close nearly all of its 11,000 federal data centers because all information and business will move to the cloud.
The federal government isn’t exactly sure how many data centers it has or where they are, but they do know the data centers are guzzling energy and money. Cloud storage provides a cheaper, faster, and more energy-efficient mode of conducting business and waging war.
What kind of business? Literally everything.
According to contracting documents, entities working on JEDI will need all levels of security clearance ranging from classified to top secret as well as levels “Q” and “L” from the Department of Energy. That means, for starters, that one tech company’s cloud will soon have the keys to all secret nuclear information.
DEOS, on the other hand, will cover day-to-day office work for over three million rank-and-file military personnel. The winner of this contract will be responsible for storing both classified and unclassified data.
As mentioned above, the DoD will award each of these contracts to one solitary company — it’s even possible one company could win both JEDI and DEOS. And the winner or winners will have their foot or feet in the door for the Pentagon’s future multi-billion dollar contracts. That is, provided they don’t let classified data or nuclear secrets slip out into the public sphere.
Several tech veterans already have solid long-term relationships with the DoD. In fact, many of them host the 11,000-plus federal data centers that will close after the JEDI contract goes through.
Although Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and IBM get the most press, not all companies competing for the contracts have announced their participation publicly.
The stakes in this race are extremely high and infighting has already broken out across the entire technology sector. As a result, at least 46 tech companies filed over a thousand comments in response to the Pentagon’s initial draft proposal for JEDI.
A lobbying group representing 400 tech companies, the Professional Services Council (PSC), pushed back by sending a letter to the Pentagon’s Cloud Executive Steering Group (CESG), the entity responsible for overseeing the contracts and all of the DoD’s cloud business. The PSC’s letter urged the CESG to amend the draft proposal and break up the hefty $10 billion JEDI contract into smaller pieces so more companies can get a piece of the pie.
At this point, the Pentagon seems dead-set on awarding the largest contract to a single company, although an imminent announcement about this decision is expected. Congress is anticipating the response as well.
Although the JEDI contract sets a dangerous precedent for the budding relationship between Silicon Valley and the U.S. government, it’s just the next logical step after years of courtship and one-night stands.
Amazon has spent the last few years demonstrating its value to the United States intelligence community through custom cloud-storage programs. In 2014, after extensive secret conversations, Amazon Web Services (AWS) signed a ten-year $600 million contract with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to develop cloud storage for all 17 intel agencies.
Defense Secretary James Mattis chats with Amazon founder and Washington Post owner, Jeff Bezos, during a visit to west coast tech and defense companies. Jeff Bezos | Twitter
Amazon is seen by some as a JEDI shoo-in, owing to its past history developing cloud storage for the Intelligence Community — although this might hurt rather than help, because a misconfigured Amazon server recently left top secret NSA data publicly available on the internet.
Intelligence agencies are notoriously inefficient because it’s almost impossible for them to effectively communicate with each other and share information. For example, the CIA does not have the ability to share information on subjects abroad with the FBI for monitoring the same subjects domestically. With help from Amazon, this could become a problem of the past, because its cloud storage programs give all intelligence agencies the ability share information like never before. This means, for example, that the NSA could rapidly send personal data to the FBI.
Prior to the passing of the PATRIOT Act, a metaphorical wall existed between various government agencies that, by law, prohibited them from sharing data with each other. Although most information sharing is now technically legal, it amounts to “organized chaos” as a result of overwhelming amounts of unrelated or unnecessary data bogging down the process. Not only will JEDI make the sharing process easier, but it could also remove the few legal safeguards left to protect data from moving freely throughout the federal government.
Amazon Web Services essentially gave the U.S. intelligence community the ability to become an unstoppable spying machine. The company proclaimed via the Washington Post that it’s the “only commercial cloud provider to offer regions [of the cloud] to serve government workloads across the full range of data classifications, including unclassified, sensitive, secret and top secret.” It’s worth mentioning that Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Another recent (and fairly secret) example includes Google and the Pentagon’s Project Maven: an artificial intelligence project worth at least $15 million. Under this contract, Google would provide AI technology to the Department of Defense (DoD) for surveillance mapping and autonomous killer drones.
Internal emails obtained by Gizmodo report that Project Maven would include a special Google Earth system entirely at the DoD’s disposal and allow analysts to “click on a building and see everything associated with it” as well as vehicles, people, terrain, and crowds for “the entire city” in question.
Google seems to have an entire department devoted to seeking out defense contracts, as the “defense and intelligence sales lead” at Google, Scott Frohman, wrote on the company blog:
Maven is a large government program that will result in improved safety for citizens and nations through faster identification of evils such as violent extremist activities and human right abuses. The scale and magic of GCP [Google Cloud Platform], the power of Google ML [machine learning], and the wisdom and strength of our people will bring about multi-order-of-magnitude improvements in safety and security for the world.”
Silicon Valley companies have something the Pentagon wants: remarkable artificial intelligence capabilities. Since the DoD doesn’t have the means to develop this technology itself, it has to purchase it from somewhere. It’s a natural partnership for an increasingly Orwellian age. Karl Rogers again for The Canary writes:
The drive for profits and market dominance demands more and more data extraction. Increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence is extracting and analysing data from us, every day. And companies like Facebook must continually experiment on us to find more and better data from us.”
Instead of handing something over to the military, these companies essentially work with the military.
So, where does Silicon Valley end and Washington begin? Well, it doesn’t.
In fact, the U.S. federal government has an entire program dedicated to providing various levels of security authorization to tech companies providing contract work: FedRAMP.
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Alphabet, Inc., stands in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, Jan. 12, 2017. Evan Vucci | AP
Prior to announcing Project Maven, Google had to secure government authorization for dealing with classified and top-secret military information. In March of this year, Google’s blog proudly announced the company had achieved this milestone by securing provisional FedRAMP 4 authorization.
With this authorization, we’re demonstrating our commitment to extending the benefit of GCP security to United States federal, state and local government customers.”
The same blog post reiterates that G Suite already had Moderate authorization from the U.S. General Services Administration but this new status expands its security capabilities.
The JEDI contract kicks things up yet another notch: whoever wins the JEDI contract will be responsible for storing information across nearly all military branches and departments from classified to top-secret and up — including nuclear-weapons information.
JEDI also sets a particularly dangerous precedent because whoever receives the contract will have already established a relationship for future AI opportunities with the United States military. Through these cloud contracts, tech companies essentially become a department extension of the United States government and its intelligence agencies. This blurs the lines between between publicly-traded, for-profit companies and governmental branches — a melding akin to the economic aspects of fascism.
But there isn’t just infighting among tech giants: rank and file workers are standing up to their company leaders’ maturing relationships with the military industry. It seems as though Silicon Valley’s emphasis on transparency and company culture is beginning to backfire.
Shortly after going public with Project Maven, Google faced unparalleled backlash from workers. Enraged that their company had conducted business with the U.S. military behind their backs, 4,000 workers created a petition urging Google to drop the AI project. After a month passed without any response from the company heads, about a dozen workers resigned.
Google recently announced it will not pursue Project Maven but will remain in the running for DEOS and JEDI.
This resistance is part of a broader united force, known as the Tech Workers Coalition, which addressed the petition to Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and IBM. Ironically enough, while the company heads go toe-to-toe for the multibillion dollar contracts, the workers below them remain united in their fight.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai pledges that it will not use AI in applications related to weapons or surveillance at a conference in Mountain View, Calif. May 8, 2018. Jeff Chiu | AP
Workers are outraged at the lack of transparency and feel they did not sign up to be in the business of war. As the petition reads:
We are tech industry employees concerned about the lack of accountability, accuracy, and safety in the use of artificial intelligence (AI) technology in offensive capabilities of the U.S. Military.
Many of us signing this petition are faced with ethical decisions in the design and development of technology on a daily basis. We cannot ignore the moral responsibility of our work.
We believe that tech companies should not be in the business of war, and that we as tech workers must adopt binding ethical standards for the use of AI that will let us build the world we believe in. Google should break its contract with the Department of Defense (DoD).”
They understand the scope of their work and, specifically, the threat big-data creates when combined with entities like the U.S. government. Although not mentioned in the petition, Facebook, for example, has an artificial intelligence program and collects vast amounts of data on people across the entire world. This problem isn’t going away and the Tech Workers Coalition doesn’t want any part of it.
The statement then goes on to highlight the tech sector’s growing threat to the general public as it slowly but surely allies with the U.S. federal government and military.
We can no longer ignore our industry’s and our technologies’ harmful biases, large-scale breaches of trust, and lack of ethical safeguards. These are life and death stakes. We risk potentially catastrophic outcomes if we continue to deploy global technical systems without care, deliberation, and a clear understanding of our significant responsibility. In signing this petition, we represent a growing network of tech workers who commit to never ‘just follow orders,’ but to hold ourselves, each other, and the industry accountable.”
The reliance on Silicon Valley and other private sector companies for technology demonstrates the internal inadequacy and unpreparedness of the United States military to move forward in the Information Age.
As countries like China rapidly advance in the field of AI, the United States will not be able to keep up without such unholy military-tech sector alliances. And as the United States continues to burn bridges with allies in Europe and isolate itself from the world, military might will soon be all it has left to sustain its influence throughout the world.
The United States military cannot develop this technology and infrastructure to keep up with the rest of the world on its own. If the workers refuse to create a cloud for the entire DoD to communicate with each other, and refuse to develop the much-needed artificial intelligence, this would pose a huge handicap for the U.S. war machine in the grand scheme.
Top Photo | Air National Guard soldiers monitor computer screens. Ted S. Warren | AP
Randi Nord is a journalist and co-founder of Geopolitics Alert. She covers U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East with a special focus on Yemen.
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