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Thousands of contracts highlight quiet ties between Big Tech and U.S. military

The report offers a new window into the relationship between tech companies and the U.S. government, as well as an important detail about why such contracts are often difficult to find.
Image: A mouse icon shadow shows law enforcement personnel from the police and military against a green background.
New research has found thousands of contracts government connected to tech companies through subcontractors.Glenn Harvey / for NBC News

Over the past two years, thousands of tech company employees have taken a stand: they do not want their labor and technical expertise to be used for projects with the military or law enforcement agencies.

Knowledge of such contracts, however, hasn’t been easy for tech workers to come by.

On Wednesday, newly published research from the technology accountability nonprofit Tech Inquiry revealed that the Department of Defense and federal law enforcement agencies including Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have secured thousands of deals with Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Dell, IBM, Hewlett Packard and even Facebook that have not been previously reported.

The report offers a new window into the relationship between tech companies and the U.S. government, as well as an important detail about why such contracts are often difficult to find.

Tech Inquiry's research was led by Jack Poulson, a former Google research scientist who quit the company in 2018 after months of internal campaigning to get clarity about plans to deploy a censored version of its search engine in China called Project Dragonfly. Poulson has publicly opposed collaborations between American technology companies and the U.S. and foreign governments that aid in efforts to track immigrants, dissenters, and bolster military activity.

Poulson analyzed more than 30 million government contracts signed or modified in the past five years. The Department of Defense and federal law enforcement agencies accounted for the largest share of those contracts, with tech companies accounting for a fraction of the total number of contracts.

He found that the majority of the deals with consumer-facing tech companies involved subcontracts, a relationship in which the government contracts with one company, which in turn contracts with another company to complete obligations it doesn’t have the resources to fulfill.

Procurement contracts tend to be terse, Poulson said, masking the depth of the ties between tech companies and federal law enforcement agencies and the Department of Defense.

“Often the high-level contract description between tech companies and the military looks very vanilla and mundane,” Poulson said in an interview. “But only when you look at the details of the contract, which you can only get through Freedom of Information [Act] requests, do you see the workings of how the customization from a tech company would actually be involved.”

Out of all the companies that surfaced in Tech Inquiry’s research, Microsoft stood out with more than 5,000 subcontracts with the Department of Defense and various federal law enforcement agencies since 2016.

Amazon has agreed to more than 350 subcontracts with the military and federal law enforcement agencies, like ICE and the FBI, since 2016, and Google has more than 250, according to Tech Inquiry’s analysis.

The analysis also includes contracts from two agencies under the Department of Homeland Security that aren’t law-enforcement related, specifically U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and the Science and Technology Directorate.

Google Cloud spokesperson Ted Ladd said in a statement that the company is proud to work with many federal agencies across the U.S. government.

“We remain committed to partnering with the government on projects that are consistent with our terms of service, acceptable use policies, and AI Principles,” Ladd said.

Microsoft declined to comment for the article and Amazon did not respond to questions from NBC News.

Russell Goemaere, a spokesperson for the Department of Defense, said it works with a variety of companies to meet its needs.

"We partner with organizations across DoD — from the services and components to combatant commands and defense agencies — to rapidly prototype, deliver, and scale advanced commercial solutions that save lives, inspire new operational concepts, increase efficiency, and save taxpayer dollars," Goemaere said in an email.

Contracts and subcontracts

Silicon Valley is well-positioned to subcontract with more traditional military contractors that lack the cloud and data processing capabilities of companies like Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

Examining these contracts and subcontracts, the brief descriptions of services includes cloud storage, databases, app support, administrative tools and logistics analysis.

Cloud solutions and storage for large government clients, however, isn’t the type of thing that can be bought off the shelf. Government cloud services are typically tailored to meet the security needs of the agency, according to Poulson, who worked as a professor of mathematics at Stanford University prior to his research role at Google.

Poulson's experience at Google helped inform his research.

In 2018, Google workers staged a protest of defense work over Project Maven, an initiative with the Department of Defense for Google to build artificial intelligence that tracks moving targets for drones. The project spurred thousands of Google employees to sign an internal petition. Some quit in protest.

None of Project Maven's contracts mentioned Google at all, Poulson said, and it was only through employee whistleblowing and investigative journalism that Google’s involvement became known.

Google’s work with Maven was orchestrated through a subcontract with ECS Federal, a U.S. defense contractor that provides technology services to arms of the Department of Defense and various federal agencies. But just because Google promised not to renew its contract doesn't mean Google products weren’t still used for the drone project.

Google’s senior vice president for global affairs, Kent Walker, reportedly said in an email to employees last year that another technology company that he didn’t name will instead use “off-the-shelf Google Cloud Platform (basic compute service, rather than Cloud AI or other Cloud Services) to support some workloads” for Maven.

Meredith Whittaker, co-founder of the AI Now Institute at New York University and a former Google employee who also organized protests at the company, said Maven showed how tech companies can work on defense projects while keeping the footprint of their involvement limited.

“As we saw in the case of Maven, Dragonfly and other products, once people create a modular component in a tech company, there’s really no way to track where that goes,” Whittaker said.

Poulson had to navigate layers of obscurity in analyzing the contracts.

The majority of Microsoft's arrangements examined in the report aren’t directly made to Microsoft, but rather through a network of subcontractors that most people have never heard of or at least wouldn’t think to include in a list of military tech providers, including well-known companies like Dell but also far more unrecognized companies such as CDW Corporation, Insight Enterprises and Minburn Technology Group.

Much of Amazon's subcontracting is through firms like Four Points Technology, JHC Technology and ECS Federal. Google also works with ECS federal as well as other lesser-known companies such as The Daston Corporation, DLT Solutions, Eyak Technology and Dnutch Associates. On April 16, ECS Federal announced a newly expanded partnership with Google Cloud to include integrations with Google Analytics and Google Maps. Later that month, ECS Federal received a new $83 million contract for prototyping artificial intelligence platforms for the Army.

It’s not clear if Google is a subcontracted partner in the recent U.S. Army contract.

Later, in May, after hiring Josh Marcuse, the executive director of the Defense Department's Defense Innovation Board, as head of strategy and innovation at Google for the global public sector, Google Cloud announced a new partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit to “to build a secure cloud management solution to detect, protect against, and respond to cyber threats worldwide.”

Clouded details

Tech Inquiry's research comes as technology companies have ramped up efforts to win large military and law enforcement contracts, despite employee activism against the work.

Microsoft and Amazon are currently locked in a court battle over the future of the high profile $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract, also known as JEDI, which was awarded to Microsoft in December 2019 to build cloud solutions for the Pentagon. The award was immediately contested by Amazon, claiming Microsoft was favored because of Trump’s political grievances with Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Washington Post.

Over the past two years, rank-and-file workers at Amazon have steadily protested the company’s deals with federal and local law enforcement, specifically addressing its facial recognition contracts with police and the company’s cloud services used by Palantir, which builds databases for ICE.

Amazon has been responsive to employee activism around climate change, but has resisted calls to stop working with ICE. In 2018, Bezos said the company had no plans to stop working with the Department of Defense.

Microsoft employees likewise petitioned the company to drop its $19.4 million contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement after the company boasted in a blogpost in 2018 that it was “proud to support” ICE and that its software allows ICE to “utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification” of immigrants.

Microsoft President Brad Smith has defended his company's defense work.

But the tension with tech workers remains, Whittaker said.

“It’s important to recognize that the marketing that happens inside of these companies, assuring workers that what they’re doing is good and that their surveillance program is used for disaster relief and not drone targeting, for instance, is much like the marketing targeted at the public,” she said

As Big Tech’s relationship with American military and law enforcement operations continues to blossom, examining the history of the tech industry reveals that the ties are more endemic to Silicon Valley than today’s crop of executives often acknowledge.

“Silicon Valley has always been in the business of war,” said Margart O’Mara, a historian of the technology industry and a professor at the University of Washington. “And the specific process of contracting and subcontracting with the military is familiar in the Valley too, dating back to the 1950s and 60s.”

Lockheed Martin, formerly Lockheed, which has long been among the largest military contractors in the country, was the biggest employer in Silicon Valley until the 1980s, O’Mara said.

Once personal computers became a consumer product, a new cohort of Silicon Valley innovators sought to distance themselves from the military industrial complex, she said.

“One of the main reasons tech became so adamant about ‘thinking differently’ and emphasizing how they’re a new style of enterprise, is because tech was so closely intertwined with the military. This is also how consumer-facing companies recruit and retain highly-skilled employees who don’t want to work for the military,” O’Mara said.

“But the defense business clearly never went away.”