On Thursday, researchers from advocacy and research groups Little Sis, Action Center for Race and the Economy (ACRE), and MPower Change published a report detailing how Big Tech has profited immensely from the War on Terror over 20 years.
The report lays out how tech companies have increasingly pursued federal contracts and subcontracts with America’s military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies after 9/11. Indeed, from 2004 to today, contracts between the federal government and major technology companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have exploded in number, the report found.
From 2007 to 2019, Department of Homeland Security contracts and subcontracts, for example, with Silicon Valley giants have increased 50-fold. Amazon and Microsoft have benefitted the most from this increase: from 2015 to 2019, Amazon saw a 400 percent increase in all federal contracts, while Microsoft enjoyed an 800 percent increase.
The report also found that Google has netted $16 million in contracts with the Pentagon, another $2 million with DHS, and nearly $4 million with the Department of Justice (the majority of that with the FBI). Facebook has just over $167,000 in contracts with the Pentagon and $363,600 with the Department of Homeland Security. It also received funds to promote a Voice of America news outlet titled “Extremism Watch”, now run by an anti-Muslim and homophobic bigot; Twitter, meanwhile, secured a $255,000 contract with DHS, according to the report.
Since 2004, five government agencies have spent at least $44.7 billion on services from those five technology companies. The lion’s share of that is from the Pentagon ($43.8 billion), followed by DHS ($348 million), the State Department ($258 million), General Services Administration ($244 million), and the Department of Justice.
“Our research is finding that because there’s an immense amount of profit to be made from US government contracts, that tech is aligning its priorities with US priorities whether that be national security or the Global War on Terror,” Sijal Nasralla, a campaign director at MPower Change. “The biggest issue we are trying to unravel here is that Big Tech is a major feature of the Global War on Terror and increasingly becoming so. In order to dismantle the global web of violence that is the war on terror, we must hold them accountable for that.”
Silicon Valley owes its existence to efforts stretching back to World War II and the Cold War to leverage military spending, state intervention, and protection from competition in the form of early grants, contracts, and government-backed monopolies. The technologies that dominate daily life today—from networked devices to semiconductors powering computation—are a direct consequence of US policy. Today, we might look to the proliferation of surveillance technologies like facial recognition surveillance or companies like Palantir as examples of this influence in the post-9/11 era.
“This is a great example of how tech is not neutral. It’s actually been very key in building out a post-9/11 regime that criminalizes Black and brown people,” said Jessica Quiason, deputy research director at ACRE. “Big Tech will always hold the line that they’re neutral but we’ve seen time and time again that this is not true. They’re building tools and the application of those tools is very specific. The post-9/11 regime was all about surveiling Muslim people, but let’s understand that DHS, CBP, they’re so far beyond targeting Muslim people. It’s Black Lives Matter protesters, helping put kids in cages at the border, Latinx folks. They’re targeting Black and brown people and immigrants everywhere.“
According to the report, as Big Tech has increased its contracts with the federal government, it has also managed to edge out traditional military contractors such as Raytheon and Northop Grumman which have seen their contracts stabilize or decline in number since 2010.
Out of the five companies that the report focuses on, Microsoft seems to be enjoying the coziest relationship with the federal government. During the first two years of the Trump administration, Microsoft saw ties with DHS skyrocket as demand for more cloud computing infrastructure to support more deportation and family separation grew. In 2020, Microsoft was able to win a $230 million contract with the department and is angling itself to snatch up another $3.4 billion DHS cloud computing contract the agency announced this year as part of the $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract that was cancelled last year with the aim of splitting the work with Amazon.
The report also outlines a revolving door between Big Tech and intelligence, law enforcement, and military agencies. The team’s research found well over 200 individuals who went back and forth between the two spheres including individuals such as Kelli Andrews, a top Microsoft lobbyist that worked at DHS for years, and Jana Kay, an AWS Cloud Security Strategist since 2018 that served at the Department of Defense for well over a decade.
“More knowledge is needed in terms of the actual contracts, where the money is going, what the contracts actually do, as well as the movements and revolving doors between these industries and agencies. I think a bigger question for us, though, is how do we shift the narrative around us,” asked Ramah Kudaimi, deputy campaign director at ACRE. “Is it acceptable for Big Tech to do these horrendous things to families at the borders…or in the name of national security and terrorism? What the War on Terror has done in the last 20 years is really blanketly impact an entire community–Muslim communities, but also other Black and brown communities all across the world have been swept up in this War on Terror.”
Recently, tech companies have mobilized to assert that they are well within their rights to pursue contracts that target marginalized communities at home or abroad, even as workers have begun to push back. Google told the National Labor Relations Board at the end of August that its employees have no right to challenge its choice of clients in an attempt to defend its decision to fire employees who protested contracts with the military. Amazon employees have walked out in protest of fossil fuel contracts made by Amazon, and the company responded by threatening to fire organizers.
“What we want to see is more investment in public, community-owned, democratically controlled tech infrastructure. We come at this using the frame of racial capitalism: that corporations and the federal government work together to uphold a system that exists solely to extract resources and wealth from Black and brown people,” said Quiason. “So for us, the solution to dismantle and destroy it is to have more collectively owned infrastructure that is publicly funded. How do we get more funding into the hands of communities so they can build out tech infrastructure that doesn’t actively target and kill them?”
The groups involved in the report are also launching a petition urging people to pressure these companies into ending their support of the Global War on Terror. Their demands include ending contracts supporting the global campaign of violence through the provision of technologies like drones and cloud databases. They also call for reparations to communities targeted and harmed by the global terror campaign, which conservative estimates say has killed nearly 400,000 civilians. Lastly, there’s a call to regulate the revolving door between Silicon Valley and the federal government, so as to limit the deleterious influence.
Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter, and Google did not respond to requests for comment.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Amazon saw a 400 percent increase in DHS contracts and Microsoft 800 percent. In fact, the increase was in all federal contracts. Motherboard regrets the error.