Cooperation with the Department of Defense is driving a rift between Silicon Valley executives and employees. In an October 26 blog post, Microsoft President Brad Smith announced that the company would not withdraw its bid for the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract with the Pentagon. Only two weeks prior, a post on Medium signed by “employees of Microsoft” had spoken out against the company’s bid for the contract. They mentioned Google, which dropped its own bid on October 8, only a few months after announcing it would not renew its Maven contract with the Pentagon, a project integrating artificial intelligence into drone footage analysis.
Google’s move had followed intense employee pressure against the contract, but Google is definitely the exception in a broader friction between tech employees and executives. Amazon employees have vocally protested the company offering its facial recognition tool (Rekognition) to law enforcement, citing civil liberties concerns, while Microsoft employees have spoken out against the firm’s contributions to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Both companies’ leadership have ignored these pushbacks, and IBM, Amazon, and Oracle have also placed bids on the JEDI contract.
But what exactly are these companies bidding for? The $10 billion JEDI contract will award a single company with the project of bringing the newest cloud computing and artificial intelligence technologies to the Department of Defense (DoD)’s infrastructure over a period of up to ten years. The bidding period closed on October 12, with four companies in the running: Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle. Amazon is expected to win the contract, thanks to its previous cloud hosting work for the CIA and its existing security clearance at almost every level. The DoD plans to announce the winner of the contract at the beginning of next year, so that work can begin in April.
Google dropped out of the bidding for JEDI on October 8, stating that if they were to obtain the contract, they could not ensure their technology would be used in accordance with their AI principles, presumably the tenet that Google will not build “technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm.” Google came up with their principles after thousands of employees petitioned the company not to seek renewal on its Maven contract with the Pentagon, arguing that building artificial intelligence to process drone footage unambiguously placed Google in the business of war. Executives eventually caved to the pressure.
The Pentagon’s widespread interest in partnering with tech firms is part of what Michael Brown, the new head of the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), considers a tech race with China. Formed in 2015, the DIU seeks to connect the government with startups. Brown believes the United States is falling behind China in technology, a problem with national security implications. “We’ve been the victims of cyber theft and industrial espionage on a much broader scale than any other country has ever perpetrated against the US,” Brown says. But it’s more than just theft now, as China is becoming a technological powerhouse in its own right. He claims that China’s governmental control of the tech sector is giving it an edge, but that the United States could keep up if the government set “national innovation priorities,” like it did in the Space Race against the Soviet Union. “We don’t tend to do that and we have to recognize that one of our adversaries is doing that frequently,” Brown argues. “We should use that tool as well.”
This is not the sentiment expressed by the Microsoft employees responsible for the blog post arguing against Microsoft’s bid for JEDI. “We joined Microsoft to create a positive impact on people and society, with the expectation that the technologies we build will not cause harm or human suffering,” they wrote. The employees pointed to a statement made by the DoD’s Chief Management Officer that “the program is truly about increasing the lethality of our department” as evidence their work would be used unethically. They further took issue with the scope and secrecy of the project, which they argued would prevent engineers from knowing what exactly it was they were building. Additionally, their objection took on a political dimension when they implied they would not want the Trump administration in particular to be responsible for lethal technology. Finally, they pointed out that “for those who say that another company will simply pick up JEDI where Microsoft leaves it, we would ask workers at that company to do the same,” and that “a race to the bottom is not an ethical position.”
In contrast, Microsoft President Brad Smith’s post argued that involvement with the Pentagon is a question of patriotism, and that tech companies can only hope to positively influence the way their technology is used by participating in its integration with the military. “We believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft,” Smith wrote. Every person living in the United States relies on its strong defense to be safe, he went on to argue. Though the military is imperfect, so is every such institution, he pointed out, and it is important to remember all of the just wars the United States has fought in, like the Civil War and World War II. Smith also argued that “to withdraw from this market is to reduce our opportunity to engage in the public debate about how new technologies can best be used in a responsible way.” Despite his support of the DoD, Smith said he understood his employees might not feel the same way, and that Microsoft has always been more than willing to let its workers switch projects. But the tech executives’ position is clear: “if big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claims, “this country is going to be in trouble.”
The problem is complex partly because technology and war are so intimately related. The Silicon Valley was built on defense contracts, as Margaret O’Mara, professor of history at the University of Washington, wrote for the New York Times, but its focus on building small devices created a perceived divide between the microchips the engineers were building and the weapons these were eventually packaged into. There is no way to avoid peacetime tech being used for war, wrote Christopher M. Kirchhoff, who worked for the Pentagon to connect it with startups, for the Times. But the inverse is true as well, as O’Mara points out. GPS and voice recognition began as military projects before becoming widely used as consumer technology. “The reason that we have pulled ourselves up as a species—by our bootstraps—is because we have continued to make technological progress,” Bezos said at the WIRED25 summit. “Technologies always are two-sided. There are ways they can be misused.”
Tech companies are becoming instrumental to the national security of the United States, as cyberattacks and election manipulation rock the country, O’Mara writes. Furthermore, the United States military is ultimately controlled by civilians, through the medium of a democratically elected government. To be sure, the US military plays a key role in keeping the nation and its values of freedom and democracy alive. However, this does not mean that the tech industry wouldn’t be within their rights to exert pressure on it, in the hope of forcing policy changes with respect to the use of military force. Would this action from tech companies always result in the best possible outcome for the national security of the United States? Probably not. But exerting those pressures would serve to affirm the very values the military fights to protect, including a government and a military which answers to the people.