21 Sep 2021
While #TechWontBuildIt helped energize tech worker organizing, tech accountability journalism is being powered by the very companies we seek to abolish. Jack Poulson argues that we must move beyond refusal – and organize around new tools to surveil these companies.
The Worker’s Perspective
By Jack Poulson
Over the last half decade, workers in tech have smartly rejected the hackathon theory of social change. But we have perhaps taken our aversion to technology development too far, by spurning any serious effort to continually monitor the corporations we are organizing against.
Last week, I published a report that revealed previously unreported details on numerous subcontractors working alongside the Pentagon’s AI drone surveillance effort (Project Maven), social media surveillance and abusive location-tracking data brokers (Venntel and X-Mode Social), and a machine gun robo-tank (EMAV). Everything I found can be seen in admittedly obscure public datasets on government procurement and lobbying. Essentially any motivated data scientist could have done the same research, and, if we had collectively been paying more attention, these ties would have been revealed in days instead of months or years.
In their #TechWontBuildIt campaign, Mijente made heavy use of research on U.S. tech companies profiting from deportations (through a project commissioned to Empower LLC), but we might ask ourselves why a large collective of highly motivated tech workers hasn’t built and deployed its own corporate research capabilities. In the meantime, intelligence contractors such as Palantir (specializes in data fusion) and Dataminr and Geospark Analytics (offers real-time alerting) have made major inroads into even accountability-focused journalism. these same companies are quietly filling this information vacuum.
A look at “accountability journalism” using Palantir’s platform is illustrative. The data-centric think tank Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) used Palantir data in its research that was cited by several major outlets: a New York Times analysis of North Korean oil deliveries, a Pulitzer-prize winning series of articles in BuzzFeed News analyzing Xinjiang detention camps, and an American Prospect investigation into U.S. defense contractors circumventing U.S. sanctions on Iran. This is no secret; C4ADS is continually advertising its analysis as being “powered” by Palantir. But even more worrying is that I recently discovered that they received $250K in a subcontract with the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency alongside location-tracking data broker X-Mode Social (now Outlogic) for ‘Bulk Datasets’.
One could argue that the explosion of private intelligence contractors, including those tech journalist use, is part of a shift of U.S. intelligence agencies from classified satellite systems and informants towards open source intelligence. And crucially, one could also argue that such a shift could be mirrored by tech workers themselves, who are dedicated to understanding and sharing knowledge about companies of interest. Where does this leave us?
Beyond #TechWontBuildIt, we can and should build tools to leer back at corporations. Consider the options, the diversity of tactics. Whistleblowing comes with enormous costs, and concentrating too much spotlight on small groups of prominent activists can be antithetical to movement building. But properly organized research efforts could dramatically lighten the information collection load of would-be whistleblowers and campaigns — even if the analysis is limited to data sources that do not require NDA violations.
I won’t go so far as to call for workers in tech to immediately open up git repositories, because that might snap us back towards the same hackathons sponsored by the management of the tech companies we are struggling against. But we can’t take Luddism too far – we have to build tools aligned with and accountable to organized labor. The corporate analysis organization LittleSis refers to their work using the familiar labor and community organizing term of a power map, a rare example that strikes a balance.
To get started, we as fellow workers in tech can collectively ask, How might we prevent U.S. contractors from dominating accountability journalism? What does it look like for tech workers to surveil corporations at least as fervently as they surveil us? Where can we trace the data sources behind the tech labor reporting we depend on? Can we make the news instead?
See what I’ve been building, read recent reports, and get in touch at TechInquiry.org. Thank you to Meredith Whittaker, Danny Spitzberg, Tamara Kneese, and the whole TWC Newsletter team for making a place for this organizing.