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Conflicts fuel weapons profits

The security-digital complex

US public and private funds support digital businesses, which are turning into partners in state security.
by Thibault Henneton
Most of us know that Silicon Valley, the centre of digital innovation, collaborates with the military: military objectives have always provided an excellent stimulus for research and development. ARPANET, the computer network developed in the 1970s, a forerunner of the Internet, was conceived for strategic purposes and funded by ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency). ARPA, set up in 1958 by President Eisenhower, added Defence to its name (DARPA) in 1972 and now has an annual budget of $3bn to support inventions likely to contribute to national defence.


In the 1960s, public defence contracts helped launch businesses in Silicon Valley. Although public and military subsidies have flowed ever since, most free market entrepreneurs affect not to notice the powerful role of this windfall from the public purse. Between 2013 and 2018, the amount of federal funding allocated just to digital security will increase from $9bn to $11.5bn (1). Amazon sells secure cloud services to over 600 government agencies and has signed a $600m contract with the CIA (2). Commercial agreements between public agencies and the private sector go a long way to explaining their collaboration on surveillance. A year after Edward Snowden’s revelations, the National Security Agency’s Anne Neuberger (responsible for the interface between the two worlds (3)), said that even the infrastructure of the NSA was built by commercial companies.

The interface is in fact more like a revolving door: Facebook’s head of security joined the NSA in 2010; Regina Dugan, former director of DARPA, is currently a vice-president at Google; and Mark Penn, a former State Department adviser to Hillary Clinton is now responsible for strategy at Microsoft. Condoleezza Rice is on the Dropbox board; she was also provost of Stanford University, the institution with the closest links to Silicon Valley (Google and Cisco were created there), before she became George W Bush’s secretary of state. Rice was the main witness at the marriage between the (public) defence sector and the (private) technology one. This alliance was consecrated in March by the defence secretary, who was “so grateful” to Eric Schmidt for agreeing to head the Pentagon’s new Defence Innovation Advisory Board: being chairman of Google, he was “the perfect chairman for this.” The digital giants, which have the largest stock market capitalisations in the world, spend ever-growing sums on lobbying the US government and the EU.

DARPA keeps working discreetly to complete this osmosis. It gives millions of dollars in grants to high schools to set up hacker schools under the Manufacturing Experimentation and Outreach programme (MENTOR). It organises computing competitions such as Cyber Grand Challenge, which offers a $2m prize for the developer of the best network defence tool. Through the DARPA Open Catalog, it contributes directly to free software development, including anti-surveillance software such as the well-known anonymous communication program, Tor. Though these investments seem unconnected, or even counter, to military objectives, they ensure the state stays in touch with what is being invented beyond its purlieus.

When a long-term gamble seems too uncertain, the defence agencies still have the option of funding the most promising startups directly. Since 1999 that has been the role of In-Q-Tel, a venture capital fund created by the CIA, whose achievements include the satellite imaging software that lies behind Google Earth, and the data visualisation tool Palantir, now worth $5-8bn. Palantir was founded by one of Silicon Valley’s most powerful investors and free market enthusiasts, Peter Thiel (PayPal, Facebook), and its ability to make sense of a disordered mass of data is highly valued by spies. Among Palantir consultants are former CIA director George Tenet, and Condoleezza Rice.

Since the 1990s, with the rise of the Internet and the globalisation of electronic data, there has been a change in the university-military-industrial complex established in the 20th century, to the detriment of the universities and the benefit of Silicon Valley. In one month in 2015, the Carnegie Mellon robotics lab in Pittsburgh lost 40 employees to Uber (4). By replacing the universities, the big-data companies have finally achieved the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned of in his farewell speech in 1961: the “permanent armaments industry” that makes public policy “captive of a scientific-technological elite”. Its limits now extend far beyond the military’s traditional subcontractors as sole vendors of digital weaponry. The new security-digital complex is a public-private hybrid that is both narrower and more far-reaching than its predecessor.

The term cybersecurity itself favours such an enlargement, referring to both the security of critical national digital infrastructures (business centres, networks for transport, energy, waste treatment and banking) and the safeguarding of cyberspace against attacks on the security of the state (organisations with subversive aims, Anonymous, data theft).

To put it simply: the state — especially through the NSA — purchases previously undiscovered “zero-day” digital vulnerabilities from cybersecurity companies; then the intelligence agencies report these weaknesses to the management of the big digital corporations, under secret programmes such as Enduring Security Framework. In return, these companies share their knowledge of analysing and scanning personal data. This pooling of resources under government auspices means that genuinely military operations concerning the defence of vital infrastructures drift towards the functions of policing (the surveillance of individuals) (5).

The big digital platforms are not arms dealers, because using them is not in itself lethal. But since the personal data that they handle, once sifted, may lead to the identification of targets and the use of lethal force, they could be said to be in the weapons business.