Google’s contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven — a controversial drone imaging program that uses artificial intelligence — prompted over 4,000 Google employees to sign a petition opposing the project, and about a dozen workers resigned in protest. In response, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced that the contract will not be extended, and that “there will be no follow-on to Maven.”
Yasha Levine has covered Silicon Valley for years, and his new book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet (PublicAffairs, February 6, 2018) details Google’s fifteen-year history of selling search, mapping, and satellite imagery services to the Defense Department and a number of intelligence agencies.
Levine notes that the complete name of Maven is “Algorithmic Warfare Cross-functional Team: Project Maven” and its purpose is to improve object identification for use in drone warfare. He also wonders how so many Google employees could have been unaware of their company’s deep involvement in military contracting through a subsidiary called Google Federal.
He explains that Google Federal, based near the CIA in Reston, VA, originated in 2004 with Google’s acquisition of a startup called Keyhole. Keyhole was midwifed by the CIA’s venture capital operation, In-Q-Tel. Keyhole’s CEO, Rob Painter, had deep connections to military and intelligence agencies, as well as to the vendors that compete for intel contracts worth an estimated $42 billion annually; Painter now runs Google Federal.
While Levine allows that some Google employees might be unaware of the military and intel work of the company, it’s widely known in Silicon Valley that most tech giants are deeply involved in these kinds of government contracts.
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|Peter B. Collins:||Welcome to this radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. In San Francisco, I’m Peter B. Collins. Recently, Google’s been in the news as activist employees signed a petition demanding an end to a contract with the Pentagon called Maven, described as artificial intelligence used to define objects, and it could be used in targeting for America’s drone force. Yasha Levine has been covering Silicon Valley for many years, first for Pando, and now he is the author of Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Yasha, thanks for joining me today.|
|Yasha Levine:||Yeah, thanks for having me on. It’s a pleasure.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Now, this is an interesting episode for Google, because the company with the mantra of, “Don’t be evil,” has been confronted by its own employees about this controversial contract about Maven, and we’ve seen the company announce not that they’re canceling the contract, but that they don’t plan to renew it. That is the current position of Google. What’s your general comment about this controversy, Yasha?|
|Yasha Levine:||Well, my general comment about this controversy is that it’s very historical. It ignores Google’s long-standing relationship with the military industrial complex and its more than a decade of contracting with the Pentagon, with the CIA, with intelligence agencies like the NSA, so people are hyper-focused on this one contract, on this one program to develop AI capability for drone visual recognition systems. But it ignores Google’s history of being, what is in essence, a military contractor, a kind of modern Lockheed Martin for the internet age. And this contracting goes back to almost the very beginnings of this company, to the early 2000s.|
|The earliest contract that I could dig up went back to 2003, when Google sold its search technology so it installed custom-made Google search boxes inside the NSA’s data warehouses. So we’re talking about fifteen years ago. So that relationship has only deepened since then and of course, Project Maven is an example of the close relationship that Google has with the military and the fact that it does work for the military. So, I’m glad that people are focusing on this, and this has become a scandal for Google, because it’s finally opened people’s eyes about the military side of Google, the military side of this cute and cuddly search company. But what we need to do is I think that we need to take a step back and try to look at this relationship in its totality, and not just this one thing, because it’s trying to do this PR move saying that, “We are not going to renew this contract, we’re getting out of this work with the military.”|
|But they’re not talking about its other contracts with the military. And no one’s really talking about that. So we must focus on that as well, not just this one particular project that it’s a part of. But you know what I want to add actually, which is actually interesting is people call this Pentagon project Project Maven, but it actually has a full title which is actually much more interesting.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Tell us.|
|Yasha Levine:||So when the Pentagon released this memorandum announcing Project Maven and the need to develop AI technology for its drone fleet, it actually called the need for, and I’m quoting here, “the Establishment of an Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional team, parentheses, Project Maven.” So Project Maven, actually the full title of it is Algorithmic Warfare. And so, it’s interesting because Google even when it first came under criticism for this contract, it said that, “Oh no, don’t worry, we’re not really doing anything that’s active, that’s part of active military operations. This is purely research, purely experimental. This is not a weapon.” Right? And where the actual full title of Project Maven is Algorithmic Warfare. And so, they are very much developing a weapon for the Pentagon.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Now, Yasha, last time I checked, Google has somewhere around 75,000 employees worldwide, some four thousand of them signed a petition objecting to participation in Project Maven. Are those four thousand people just completely oblivious to the history that you just cited?|
|Yasha Levine:||Yeah, that’s a good question. I think they don’t want to look at that history. I think it’s a good question because it gets to something fundamental about this conflict, and the scandal. And that has to do with AI, or the aura around this idea of artificial intelligence, because it seems that a lot of people put a lot of store and a lot of fear into this idea of developing machines that can think on their own. Of course, artificial intelligence, it’s something that’s been a part of computing since computing was invented, that’s what computers do. They automate some kind of computational aspects that people don’t want to do or it’s too difficult for people to do.|
|So I think that the reason that this is such a scandal now is because of artificial intelligence. People really are afraid of artificial intelligence, but they’re not necessarily afraid of Google working with a predictive policing company, based in California, in Santa Cruz, called PredPol, and helping PredPol develop specialized algorithmic tools and special mapping tools to predict crime. So that somehow doesn’t scare people because it’s not AI. Yet, it’s working with a predictive policing company. And so I don’t know how to exactly explain it, I think, or how to exactly describe it but I think the scandal here is because of people’s fear of AI, and people are willing to overlook all the other stuff that Google does, like run a private spy satellite with the NGA, which is the sister agency to the NSA.|
|They are willing to overlook the fact that Google essentially maintains a monopoly on geospatial visualization software, meaning that software that allows intelligence agencies to display spy satellite information. People are willing to overlook that, yet they are freaked out when they hear the word AI, because they think of some kind of computer super-god that is going to be launched and that’s going to control everything and enslave us.|
|Peter B. Collins:||So this disconnect is surprising because in preparation for this interview, I did a Google search about Project Maven. And then I did a Bing search, which did produce some additional results that weren’t on the first two pages of the Google search, but people who work for Google should be able to access this data and as far as I know, the information in your book, Surveillance Valley, is not classified even for Google employees.|
|Yasha Levine:||No, no, it’s not. I mean look, it’s not easy to find this information because Google was somewhat open in the mid-2000s when it first started going into the military contracting it’s based in. And when it first opened up its Google Federal division, a division that was involved in just trying to sell Google technology to the military and to federal agencies, it was somewhat open about it and executives from this division gave interviews, and you could read stories about it in the Washington Post, and the New York Times.|
|But as Google became much more of a civilian company and didn’t want to be associated with this surveillance aspect or government aspect of its business, it basically cut that off and there was nothing in the media about it anymore. In order to find information about this you really had to dig deep. You’d have to go into federal procurement databases, which are notoriously hard to navigate. They’re very vague, you really have to connect the dots and do real journalism, essentially to understand what’s going on.|
|Peter B. Collins:||You were the first to share with me the information you referred to a moment ago, about the original connection when the company called Keyhole, which had been financed by the venture capital arm of the CIA, In-Q-Tel, was purchased by Google, and it came with the executive Rob Painter. So explain for our listeners what Rob Painter does for Google based in Reston, Virginia.|
|Yasha Levine:||Keyhole is this 3-D mapping software that Google acquired in 2003 and Keyhole got investment seed money from the CIA via its venture capital firm, In-Q-Tel. And when Google bought Keyhole, it also bought all the military contracts that Keyhole had because Keyhole’s mapping technology was immediately put to use after In-Q-Tel invested in it. It was immediately put to use in an operational military setting. So the time America was invading Iraq, and Keyhole was used by the Pentagon to display satellite imagery, spy satellite imagery. So when Google bought this company, it took on all of these obligations, all these contracts.|
|And it also took a couple of executives from the company that helped expand the company’s military contracting division and set it up and find customers. So Keyhole was this very defining moment for Google because it marked the moment when it really started turning towards military contracting and started looking at military contracting as a lucrative source of business. But of course it wasn’t the only thing because Google, on its own without even Keyhole, was contracting with NSA to provide search technology internally. So NSA analysts could go to an internal Google page, an NSA Google page, and search using Google’s algorithms and NSA’s data, just like you would research the internet today. The CIA bought the same thing from Google, so this was 2003, 2004, 2005. So there were different avenues through which Google worked with the military agencies and intelligence agencies.|
|And Keyhole was not the only avenue but it definitely was a big marker for the company, because from then on it really started trying to grab military contracts and it really started to work with establishment military contractors, like Lockheed Martin, like Raytheon. So Google began to actually play the role of a subcontractor. So let’s say Lockheed Martin had to go in and put in some kind of new data system for the army and Google would be subcontracted by Lockheed Martin to build a portion of that, or provide technology for portion of that contract.|
|And so, again, this has been going on for a decade and a half, we only know just a tiny little bit of actually what’s going on because a lot of these contracts are classified and they’re very, very hard to get any kind of information on. And so, Project Maven, and some of the contracts that I uncovered while I was writing Surveillance Valley, these are just tiny little bits of information that show that there’s a lot, a lot more going on. And for instance, in the news that has been coming about Project Maven, and emails that were leaked to the New York Times by someone inside Google, show that Google is gunning for what is essentially a 10 billion dollar contract, a potential 10 billion dollar contract, to run military cloud services. Right?|
|Peter B. Collins:||I thought Amazon had that contract with the CIA.|
|Yasha Levine:||Yeah with the CIA, but the CIA’s only one intelligence agency, and there’s a lot more business out there. The contract for classified cloud services is worth, the New York Times says, 10 billion dollars. And Google is just one of the companies vying for that contract. Other companies include Microsoft, Amazon, IBM. And so, this is what Google is. Google has multiple sides to it. There’s the consumer division, but that consumer division is only separated by a very very thin wall, from a lucrative military division.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Now that is described as Google Federal, that’s what Rob Painter manages in Reston, Virginia. Do you know, Yasha, when Google reorganized, and set up the holding company Alphabet, is Google Federal a very separate, distinct division from the main Google search-based and advertising-based company?|
|Yasha Levine:||That’s a good question. I’m not sure, because I know that it’s gone through multiple re-brandings and re-organizations. I’m not even sure it’s called Google Federal anymore, meaning it might be a part of Google Enterprise. But again, these divisions are kind of secretive and so, I actually don’t know enough to tell you, I don’t think it’s a separate division. I think there are parts of Google that have been broken out and each of those might have like a kind of federal- or government- facing department that’s trying to sell its stuff to the government. I know that the Project Maven, the division of Google that’s involved in this is Google Cloud, and that’s part of Google as far as I understand. It’s not a separate corporate entity.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Waymo, for example their self-driving car start-up, that appears to be a distinct separate corporate entity that is under the Alphabet umbrella but is not distinctly a part of Google.|
|Yasha Levine:||Yes, yes, exactly. So I do think that Google Cloud and Google Federal would be part of Google because they are selling Google services, and Google products. Now, don’t quote me on that, and again, it doesn’t really matter because in essence it is how it’s structured on a corporate level. Google has become so big that it’s a family of products and it’s a family that’s related in many different ways, and it’s connected. So whether or not Google Federal has ever broken out, I would actually think it would be a much better public relations perspective. I think it would be much better for Google to break out its military contracting division as a separate entity and call it something completely different.|
|And then, in the background, have that company lease or rent Google services and then resell them essentially. But that would be the smart thing to do, I don’t know, maybe they have some people working on it right now. I’m not too worried about Google.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Alright. What can you tell us about the background of Diane Greene, the CEO of Google Cloud? She’s been the face of this controversy. Does she have an intelligence or military background?|
|Yasha Levine:||You know, it’s a good question. I don’t think so. I didn’t break this story, and I’ve only been following it just a little bit more deeply than probably you have. I just have a sort of background knowledge on other contracts in Google’s military contracting history. I have not actually looked very deeply at Google Cloud, and its history and the history of its executives, so I won’t be able to answer that question.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Alright. So let me quote from “Surveillance Valley.” You say, “Google has been tight-lipped about the details and scope of its contracting business. It does not list this revenue in a separate column in quarterly earnings reports to investors, nor does it provide the sum to reporters. But an analysis of the federal contracting database maintained by the U.S. government combined with information gleaned from the Freedom of Information Act Requests, and published periodic reports on the company’s military work reveal that Google has been doing brisk business selling Google Search, Google Earth, and Google Enterprise, now known as G Suite products, to just about every major military and intelligence agency. Navy, Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, DARPA, NSA, FBI, DEA, CIA, NGA, and the State Department.”|
|Now you didn’t list all of those seventeen intelligence agencies that Mrs. Clinton claimed had cleared her, but it’s over ten, and so you also point out this massive shift in recent years. By the time that Google Federal went online in 2006, the Pentagon was spending the bulk of its budget on private contractors. That year of the 60 billion U.S. intelligence budget, 70%, or about 42 billion, went to corporations. So this has produced a feeding frenzy, and a wave of profiteering from military contracts by tech companies. And I’m just curious if you feel if there are adequate firewalls for example, given the contracts that Google has with the NSA, is all the data that they collect on me from my searches provided as part of that package?|
|Yasha Levine:||I mean look, I’d be surprised if the NSA buys, let’s say the Office Suite, right, a kind of collaborative office suite that we use as Google Documents. All of your information comes standard as a standard package, or maybe there’s an additional add-on that they have to pay a little extra for that gets them our information. But look, what this shows is that Google and the government, the separation between those two entities are sometimes nonexistent. Very hazy, and sometimes nonexistent. The pie of advertising revenue is limited and there are a lot of people fighting for it. And so Google made a decision to go for this military contracting market, which is extremely lucrative and it’s only expanding.|
|The amount of money that our government spends on information systems is expanding, and so it wants it to happen to that market. The more that it depends on military contracting and government contracting, the more it’s beholden to the government and the less it’s willing to protest anything or of course, I don’t really think it was protesting it before, I’m not sure if this is a deal-breaker for Google. When the Prism Program was launched, and Google became a partner of Prism Program, as Edward Snowden revealed, I don’t think that military contracting was a huge part of Google’s business back then. It was significant but it wasn’t huge, maybe a couple percentage points. But it still went along with the Prism Program, it still went along in secret, it didn’t even attempt to notify its users or to protest it in any way as far as we know.|
|And so I think as any major corporation, Google is just very much part of this American national security machine and it’s that way whether or not it’s seeking business and it’s directly profiting off the government and off national security, or it’s indirectly profiting off the government. Profiting by the fact that the USA is able to open markets and to guarantee foreign markets and access to foreign markets for Google’s products and to batter any country that attempts to close its borders or to close its markets to Google and to other giant corporations.|
|So I think that we like to separate things out in this clean way between private and public, and corporate and government. But I think the more you look at Silicon Valley and the more you look at companies like Google, the more you realize that on all these different levels, from foreign policy apparatus to the actual information systems that our government uses, to conduct business, to the way that intelligence agencies access and treat the internet and these private internet platforms as surveillance, basically collection tools for intelligence, you see that there isn’t really a hard line separating these two things. And so Project Maven is a very clear example of that. The Pentagon needed technology for its drone fleet, it wanted its drone to be able to recognize objects, automatically on the fly and categorize them. And so it didn’t look internally, the Pentagon didn’t create its own internal division to develop this technology. It went to the private sector.|
|It went to companies like Google and it’s just an example of the lack of separation between private and government and I think what this shows is that we need to focus a lot more on private surveillance and private power because so far when people talk about privacy and surveillance, generally the conversation is weighted towards fears of government overreach. So ever since Edward Snowden exposed the tie between Silicon Valley and the NSA, the focus in civil society has been on limiting government surveillance. But we have to expand our definition of what government surveillance means or what surveillance means because these companies are very clearly part of that machine and we cannot limit government surveillance without limiting private surveillance as well.|
|Peter B. Collins:||And what you just described, the scope and the history of Google’s defense contracting, does raise questions about this disconnect. How could four thousand people be outraged over Maven and not be aware of the other projects, even secret ones that you and I aren’t even barely aware of? So it’s interesting to see that there is activism and some sort of concern by Google employees but it also does raise questions about where they’ve been.|
|Yasha Levine:||Well look, I know people who work at Google and some of them still work there now, others have moved on to work for other companies but one thing that you have to understand is that Google is a giant company with tens of thousands of employees. And these people are focused on their very specific, very particular line of work, whether it is some people are just doing specific, let’s say, visual recognition algorithms to try to help Google’s Image Search, right? Figure if something is a banana or a cucumber, right? Others are programming its news algorithms and are just focused on that and so the divisions, the employees that are actually working on these kinds of military projects, or projects that have a direct military connection are actually, probably, pretty small. And so it makes sense that most people don’t come face to face with it in their daily worker team at Google.|
|But also, if they do hear something about it, it’s their work. It’s where they go every day, they know the people that work there. They’re nice people. They mean well, right? And so it’s something that you’d rather not think about and rather not entertain too deeply and you probably, the people that I know, they scoff at this stuff. They see it at as just people are kind of paranoid and they know that the people who run Google are good people. They wouldn’t do anything bad. And so it’s not surprising. It’s not the only industry that we can see this kind of behavior.|
|And anyway, what do employees have, what kind of power do just workers have, really? And what options do they have? So, let’s say the people that resigned from Google. Well, where are they going to go to work? Are they going to work for Facebook? Are they going to work for maybe Amazon, or maybe Ebay? Will they work for Twitter? Will they work for IBM or Microsoft? All of these companies have ties to the national security state or many of them are military contractors in their own right. And so I think you don’t really have a lot of options in this industry because its very connected and the overlap between Silicon Valley and the national security state is very huge and so they’re integrated, and so I think rather than resigning, you can protest internally but really what power do you have as just a salaried employee?|
|Peter B. Collins:||And finally Yasha, just kind of an image of this cozy connection between Google and the military aspect of our government, their campus is located next to a decommissioned Navy base, Moffett Field, and to my knowledge, the only corporate jet that is permitted to take off and land at Moffett, also known as NASA Ames, is the Google Jet. And this certainly pisses Larry Ellison, the CEO of Oracle, ’cause he’s got to land at the San Jose Airport. And I realize this is imagery and circumstantial. But do you see that as some sort of an indication of that coziness I described?|
|Yasha Levine:||I don’t know, it’s more of an accident, I guess. It’s funny because I know that Larry Page’s father was also a computer engineer and actually a pioneer in some early AI stuff, and he, for a year or two, he actually worked on Moffett Field under an ARPA contract, so ARPA is what’s known as DARPA now. So actually Larry visited that place when he was a kid. I think, look, the worst thing about that relationship that Google can land its jets at Moffett is actually Google got a bunch of subsidies in jet fuel, because it doesn’t just land there but it uses the government facility to refuel its fleet. And there was an investigation a few years back that showed that the U.S. government consistently gave it a discount that was meant for government planes, but that Google essentially never paid the difference. And so it got millions of dollars in subsidized jet fuel from the U.S. government and not just a landing strip that’s in their backyard. It’s nice to be Google.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Yasha Levine has covered and uncovered quite a bit in Silicon Valley. I recommend his latest book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet. Thank you Yasha.|
|Yasha Levine:||Thanks a lot. Thanks for having me on.|
|Peter B. Collins:||Thanks for listening to this radio WhoWhatWhy podcast with my guest Yasha Levine. Send your comments to email@example.com, and I invite you to support our work, independent investigative journalism, with financial support, at whowhatwhy.org.|
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