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16 Sep, 2021 12:05

How Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft wage a domestic War on Terror, and make billions

How Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft wage a domestic War on Terror, and make billions

A new report has laid bare the relationship between Silicon Valley and the American state, and the trillions of dollars they have made since 9/11.

The War on Terror was a veritable feeding frenzy for defense contractors, with the sector profiting to the collective tune of trillions. However, it wasn’t the only industry cashing in – as a new report produced by three US campaign groups reveals, “household names in tech like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft have respectively reaped billions from selling tech to the war machine.”

In all, 86% of government contracts awarded to Amazon and 77% to Google to date are said to have been related to the War on Terror. That income played a pivotal role in transforming these organizations from small start-ups, literally operating from basements, into global behemoths. What’s more, the crosshairs of this effort have now been turned inward, with everything from databases to drones repurposed for domestic use.

Of the five federal agencies that have spent most on the services of major tech companies over the past two decades, four were central to, or established as a result of, the War on Terror – the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Justice and State. Since 2004, at least $44.5 billion has flowed from this quartet to Big Tech.

The report calculates that sum could’ve provided food and nutrition aid to the entire population of Afghanistan 15 times over, ensured access to shelter, healthcare, food, and water to the entire population of Iraq 26 times over, or distributed over 108 billion pounds of food in Yemen. Instead, it funded endeavors such as Google’s Maven program, which used artificial intelligence to make drone strikes deadlier. Data analyzed only covers publicly available information too, so cited figures are “very likely an underrepresentation.”

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The steady rise in Washington’s tech spending in recent years – in 2019, Amazon and Microsoft were awarded five and eight times, respectively, the number of contracts they received four years earlier – is concurrent with a steady decline in the number of contracts received by traditional players such as Northrop Grumman and Raytheon. In the same period, “hundreds” of individuals have also rotated between high-level jobs at tech giants and the departments splurging on their services.

For example, Jared Cohen currently leads Jigsaw, a unit within Google “that explores threats to open societies.” He joined the company in 2010 after four years at the State Department, where he was implicated in numerous overseas destabilization efforts. For instance, during the June 2009 protests in Iran, Cohen approached Twitter and asked the social network not to perform planned maintenance that would’ve temporarily closed the platform, to ensure protesters could continue tweeting.

White House officials were reportedly furious, as his actions breached the Obama administration’s policy of non-intervention in Tehran’s affairs – it seems Google has been similarly unhappy with his insurrectionary conduct at times. Leaked internal emails from private intelligence firm Stratfor reveal that the company’s chief executives attempted to prevent Cohen from visiting Gaza in February 2011, as they suspected the “loose cannon” was on a “specific mission of regime change.”

Perhaps they feared his cover had been blown. Another email indicates he met with Wael Ghonim, the Google staffer who kickstarted the 2011 Egyptian revolution, in Cairo days after the protests began. One of Jigsaw’s first projects was the development of controversial counter-terrorism tools for social media platforms, which sought to dissuade Muslims from joining groups such as Daesh by targeting ads at individuals typing in terms and keywords Google determined were searched by potential terrorists.

It’s unknown if these tools have a surveillance component, although that would be unsurprising. According to official data, Google turned over information to US authorities when asked in 82% of cases in 2020. Facebook meanwhile complied with 89% of Washington’s requests. Its Threat Intelligence division, launched in 2015, is a veritable den of spies, counting numerous former CIA and NSA operatives among its staff.

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Amazon reported an 800% spike in state requests for information recorded by its Echo, Fire and Ring devices, as well as searches through its website and app, last year. It also hired at least 20 Bureau veterans between 2017 and 2020 alone, some of whom retain their top-secret security clearances. Steve Pandelides, security chief at Amazon Web Services, previously served at the NSA, CIA and FBI at the highest levels.

This may account for why the intelligence community is so uncharacteristically trusting of the company. In 2013, the CIA invested hundreds of millions in a cloud computing system constructed by the division, to enhance information-sharing capabilities. In August, the NSA awarded a contract worth $10 billion to Amazon Web Services, under which all its signals intelligence and foreign surveillance data will be collated in a single, easily searchable repository. The move is being challenged by Microsoft, which was also a bidder.

Joseph D. Rozek, who the report notes played an integral role in the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, is now Microsoft’s Executive Director for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, where he is allegedly responsible for “developing and implementing a strategic business plan in the area of homeland security, counterterrorism, and information sharing.”

The company found itself in hot water in 2013, when documents released by Edward Snowden revealed that its “information sharing” policies extended to collaborating with intelligence services to allow user communications to be intercepted, with Microsoft actively helping the NSA to circumvent its own encryption. In one file, the NSA bragged that subsequent to the tech giant’s 2011 purchase of Skype, it collected three times the amount of video calls made through the platform than it did previously.

Shocking as the report’s details may be, it isn’t actually anything new. The internet itself grew out of ARPANET, a computer network bankrolled by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. This of course has enormous implications for its modern-day usage. In the words of journalist Yasha Levine, the web “was developed as a weapon and remains a weapon,” with Washington’s national security interests and objectives dominating almost every sinew of the network.

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Similarly, Google’s own origins trace back to a US intelligence program in the 1990s, under which academics were financed to create a system whereby vast quantities of data on private citizens could be monitored, collected, and stored, and individual users identified and tracked. Throughout the search engine’s development, company cofounder Sergey Brin met regularly with research and development representatives of defense contractors and the CIA – one has since recalled how he would “rush in on roller blades, give his presentation and rush out.”

Never forget too that the CIA is quite the trendsetter in Silicon Valley – for every single dollar invested in an emerging tech company by its venture capital arm In-Q-Tel, the private sector injects $18. It may be incumbent to bear this in mind the next time one reads about the latest start-up guru set to take the world by storm in the mainstream media. A hipster or geek they may sincerely be, but their product will almost inevitably have military and/or intelligence applications encoded within its very core.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.