Issue 7: The Tech Companies Building Weapons for War

24 Jul 2020

Research scientist, former Google employee, and TWC Toronto member Jack Poulson writes about his recent report on tech companies’ military and surveillance contracts.

Tech companies by number of contracts with US agencies

A table ranking tech companies by number of contracts with US agencies, 2016–2020. / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

By Jack Poulson

As tech workers, we’re often assigned projects with little visibility into the intended uses. When I was an academic, the Department of Energy framed all work as “stockpile stewardship” rather than weapons development, and DARPA sanitized data science problems to obscure their guiding light: increasing the lethality of battle networks. This helps keep workers focused on competing with each other, rather than organizing around what should even be built.

But over the past few years, tech workers at Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have protested building weapons and surveillance systems for military and law enforcement contracts, with some wins. In response, a network of tech CEOs and Department of the Defense officials have started to push a narrative that tech workers refusing to build weapons constitutes “treason,” part of a systemic divide between Silicon Valley and the DoD – a divide so severe that it might prevent the US from credibly deterring China’s military. The unspoken line crossed: publicly stating that profiting from weapons systems violated civilian ethics. In contradiction, director of Defense Innovation Unit Michael Brown argued that concerns are overblown, pointing to Microsoft and Amazon executives who understand that companies are not democracies but have a responsibility to serve their government.

In my time at Google, I regret staying silent during internal protests over defense contracts Air Gap and Project Maven, and have since done what I can to stand with workers objecting to their company profiting from weapons. An op-ed I wrote about protecting worker organizing rights earned me an invitation to meet members of the DoD as well as a personal letter from a senior official thanking me for my “passion”. I spent months trying to learn more, mainly through filing FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests about contracts.

After seeing this concerted effort to use anecdotal evidence of a “divide” between Silicon Valley and the military to suppress tech workers’ rights to question the ethics of their assignments, I conducted a study to quantify the alleged divide. Instead of waiting on extremely delayed FOIAs, I spent what amounted to thousands of hours curating public data on the past five years of federal procurement data. I found the “divide” was greatly exaggerated.

I want to emphasize two points in the study:

  1. The defense industry has used engagement with China as a cudgel to attack companies who dare to debate whether to build its weapons — for example, as a result of #TechWontBuildIt organizing.
  2. There is no systemic divide between tech companies and the US military. Numerous tech companies — including several from Silicon Valley — build tech for weapons and surveillance. HP (especially its spin-off, Perspecta), IBM, Microsoft, Dell, Amazon, Palantir, NVIDIA, and Anduril are major defense contractors, Google is hedging with defense board positions and secure cloud services. Apple, Facebook, and Twitter are largely on the sidelines.

Overall, the report provides a holistic overview of all US federal contractors — all of the money flowing between various tech companies and key federal agencies within the DoD, DHS, DoJ, and diplomatic and media arms of the government. In the two weeks since the report came out, several groups — ranging from anti-surveillance activists to journalists — have made use of the methodology and/or tools from the report. You can read more about the study and see the interactive tables here.

In The News

Black Lives Matter protests continue across the country, despite the lack of recent coverage. In Louisville, Kentucky Breonna Taylor’s murderers have still not been charged but at a recent action at the Kentucky Attorney General’s house, 87 peaceful protesters were arrested and charged with felonies. These intimidation tactics from the police are beyond reprehensible.

As workers we are morally obligated to put pressure on executives and investors to take meaningful action to protect Black lives. In 2017, MediaJustice founder Malkiya Cyril detailed surveillance of their ancestors in a call to end high-tech policing. Again in 2020, Cyril wrote, “I’m a second-generation Black activist, and I’m tired of being spied on by the police” in a call to end facial recognition and biometric policing – “before it’s too late.” While organizers succeed in Boston, Oakland, and San Francisco in getting City Council to pass a ban on facial recognition technology, the coalition behind continues to pressure Congress to pass a ban nationwide. Alongside this, worker organizing needs to go further inside of companies, too.

The tech industry has long been an enabler of state violence against Black communities. One of the primary methods of such state violence is through surveillance and facial recognition software, like what is currently happening in Detroit. Amazon has provided racist surveillance and facial recognition tech to thousands of police departments across the country, but we know their recent 1-year moratorium on that tech is only a publicity stunt. Tawana Petty writes for Wired:

We see the videos of the people police hurt and kill—but the surveillance that led to that brutality is often hidden from us. Surveillance is the foundation of modern policing. It has ties to a long racist legacy, from the branding of enslaved people to the Lantern Laws of the 18th century. Police and politicians defend these programs by claiming they are intended to keep people safe. But for Black people, surveillance ain’t safety. […] Black communities, who have been underresourced and ignored for decades, want to be seen, not watched.

As deep fakes continue misleading people, Trump was seen on TV saying “defund the police.”

Meanwhile, Facebook is still allowing voter misinformation to flourish on its platform with just 101 days until the next US presidential election. Even when content is fact-checked and marked as misinformation, this happens slowly, allowing for outright lies to go viral and spread wide before they get marked as “misleading.” In the meantime, advertisers’ boycott of Facebook continues. Disney, reportedly Facebook’s largest advertiser in the first half of 2020, dramatically reduced its ad spending on the platform. But, as a moderator told us last issue, it doesn’t seem likely that this will have much effect on Zuckerberg. It may come down to a combination of a walkout, a logout, and a time out for Facebook to own up to its civic responsibility.

Reading Palantir’s website, you might think the company helps fight human trafficking and cure diseases. But they do not. They’ve been building tech tools and applications to help ICE, CBP, and other US agencies harass and arrest immigrants and undocumented people, a fact called out by a growing chorus – from local rapid response organizers to US Senator Elizabeth Warren. As the unprofitable company prepares for its IPO, Palantir criticism grows louder as the company nets over $40M in new contracts. With little apparent organizing inside the company, a similar situation is unfolding at the collaborative code hosting company GitHub, now owned by Microsoft and still serving up tech for ICE. This week a new wave of prominent users called on GitHub to drop ICE.

In History

During the years before and during World War II, IBM president Thomas J Watson collaborated with Nazi Germany to organize – and micromanage – all six phases of the Holocaust: identification, exclusion, confiscation, ghettoization, deportation, and extermination. This resulted in the deaths of Jews, Roma, Black Europeans, gay men, people with handicaps, and other persecuted people.

In his 2001 book “IBM and the Holocaust,” Edwin Black shows how IBM aided the massive bureaucracy behind the Holocaust, making a decisive difference: “a death ratio for France was approximately 25 percent” where “punch card infrastructure was in complete disarray” but “a death ratio of approximately 73 percent” in Holland where IBM’s punch card system was in full effect. Other evidence points to IBM’s attempts to obscure itself via subsidiaries. Black argues that the Polish company Watson Business Machines, which ran a punch card printing shop near the Warsaw Ghetto and used IBM’s proprietary paper, was owned and operated by IBM. Black also cites Leon Krzemieniecki, a Polish rail administrator who realized that a foreign company must be involved in transporting people to concentration camps:

“they were not German machines… The labels were in English… The person maintaining and repairing the machines spread the diagrams out sometimes. The language of the diagrams of those machines was only English.”

IBM has never denied their involvement in the Holocaust — only criticizing Black for his methods and tone.

IBM has continued working with governments to hurt people. Collective Actions lists a 2016 pledge by IBM employees not to build a ‘Muslim registry’ for the Trump administration:

After the IBM CEO Ginny Rometty sent a letter congratulating Trump on his presidency and refusing to rule out participation from building a Muslim registry, IBM employees created a petition on to demand that the company acknowledge the diversity of its staff and not work to further the more xenophobic aspects of Trump’s agenda.

This past week, IBM’s Ginni Rometty joined a roundtable endorsed by the White House telling Americans to “Find Something New.” Once again shifting blame, the campaign suggests that individuals can overcome widespread unemployment and economic suffering, if they only try harder to find work.

Some companies never change.

In Song

No Rest For The Weary, by Blue Scholars

There’s no rest for the weary just another day grinding up stones
Till they turn into dust, it’s tough times in the rough
Diamonds ain’t enough to cover up a corrupted and fucked up legacy of strange fruit
Bloody whips and small pox, trigger-happy cops
Barbed wire and fire water, y’all it don’t stop
When the colonizer came with the cross and the sword
I threw the first spear and said “I declare war!”
I’m a battle-scar wearing heir apparent
Descendants of a long lineage of proletariat and peasant
So check the work ethic and the name
The lessons might change but the essence of the message is the same

So when they say anything
Say “why is it?”
Class is in session ‘til the teacher gets a pink slip
Forty to a class, no wonder we delinquent
Half the school district never make it to commencement

I bent the spine of the track until it snaps
Pops working overtime and he got a broken back
Got three little sisters, one brother in Iraq
And mom prays novenas to keep the fam intact
I ride for my brother who carry the burden
Of a future uncertain ‘til the fall of the curtain
You better move
Hold your head high soldier, it ain’t over yet
That’s why we call it a struggle
You’re supposed to sweat
Check the work ethic and the name
The lessons might change but the essence of the message is the same

So when they say anything
Say “why is it?”
Class is in session ‘til the teacher gets a pink slip
Crazy landlady tried to switch up on the lease
If she raises up the rent again it’s time to say “peace”