Blurred Boundaries Between Big Tech and Government
Amazon has been in the news lately due to its nearly finalized cloud contract with the government. Amazon Web Services, Amazon’s cloud hosting service, has been a huge revenue driver for the conglomerate. The Department of Defense favors Amazon Web Services over the competition to host its data for military missions. Amazon could make $10 billion on this contract alone. The partnership with the DoD, though, isn’t the extent of Amazon’s relationship with the government. Amazon also released a product called Ring, a home security system that acts as a private surveillance network. Ring footage is being shared with local police forces to counter crime. These partnerships are undoubtedly helping to improve the government’s efficiency. That said, we should be reluctant to give so much data to one company.
Large technology companies across the world are deploying cutting edge products at a rapid clip. As governments continue to battle for world supremacy, we’re starting to see tighter linkages between big tech and government. Google came under fire for helping China build a censored search engine. Huawei is effectively a state owned enterprise. What may happen as these collaborations run their courses? I’ll identify four areas to watch as big tech and government work together.
Amazon’s Ring security system is just one example of big tech enabling government surveillance. In China, “smart cities” are becoming hubs in which facial recognition technology is being developed. In some Beijing districts, the government can track where people are going, what they’re doing, and how long they’re doing it for. These surveillance capabilities are helping China to identify and eliminate opposition forces within its borders. This is the authoritarian model China wants to move towards. Recent developments indicate the West is increasing its surveillance capabilities as well.
Peter Thiel’s data mining company, Palantir, provides the US government with surveillance software. Palantir has been instrumental in stopping Chinese spying, terrorist plots from succeeding, and bank fraud from happening. The company enjoys lucrative contracts with the CIA, FBI, DoD, NSA, and other government agencies. That said, Palantir knows just about everything about us. The level of surveillance is unprecedented and will only continue to increase as technology advances. Palantir is so successful that it’s now valued at $20 billion. As it looks for customers outside the government and inside the private sector, we can expect the surveillance network to grow in scale.
Over a year ago, Google employees had publicly protested “Project Maven.” Project Maven was an Artificial Intelligence project Google was contracted to perform for the Department of Defense. Over time, the AI could be used to improve military drone strikes. Google employees feared its weaponization of AI strayed from Google’s “don’t be evil” motto. While Google may have been pressured to abandon the contract, other technology companies have proven willing to engage with the military. The above mentioned Amazon DoD contract shows just how much money is to be made from the military. Microsoft is putting HoloLens, its augmented reality headset, in the hands of US soldiers. The HoloLens could help the military better train its troops. Microsoft also faced backlash from its employees, as over 50 workers petitioned the company to cease development of the technology. Amid the backlash, though, you’ll find big tech making efforts to strengthen their relationships with government entities.
China wants to become the world leader in Artificial Intelligence by 2030. Canada released a national AI strategy. The Middle East is investing billions in AI. AI is proving to be big business and, these days, big business requires big tech. The US government is no different. The Department of Defense has published its AI strategy to advance US security and prosperity. Commercial enterprise partnerships are critical to realizing their goals, as the government has conceded the best AI talent is in the private sector. In addition to using AI to improve military capabilities, the US government wants to use AI to bolster its deployment of humanitarian aid. By better identifying damaged buildings and trucks using satellite images, the US can more rapidly help those in need. In addition to Amazon, IBM, Oracle, and SAP are all courting the government as slices of its AI budget are distributed. The pie isn’t infinite in size, though. The big tech and government partnership is growing more competitive, as accusations of unfair play are now being litigated in court. With so much money at stake, we’ll likely see the court room drama continue.
Telecommunications firms are racing to develop 5G technology, since it will revolutionize the way in which data are transferred. Verizon claims that 5G wireless communications will be 200 times faster than those of its 4G predecessor. Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications firm, is one of the few companies that has commercialized 5G telecommunications networks. With the potential to serve as underlying infrastructure upon which smart cities, artificial intelligence, and other innovative technologies are built, 5G networks are a massive business opportunity. As you might expect, both the US and China are vying to become the 5G leader.
The battle for 5G leadership has devolved into a cold war between nations. The US has accused Huawei of spying on US firms on behalf of the Chinese government. The Trump administration has therefore blacklisted Huawei, effectively prohibiting US based companies from transacting with the Chinese owned telecommunications firm. As technology advances are needed to enable national government strategies, big tech and government will become inextricably linked.
How Should We Feel About the Big Tech and Government Partnership?
Let me be clear: I fear the big tech and government partnership more than any other threat out there. With competition between nations being fueled by advances in technology, I see a disaster waiting to happen. The growing military budgets are pushing technology companies to fight for contracts, even if the projects impinge on the privacy of civilians. Worse yet, I don’t want the US big tech firms to slow down their technological developments. If they did, China would pose an even greater threat. We have therefore found ourselves in a horrifying arms race. It doesn’t matter who wins the race, for it will be a Pyrrhic victory.
Do you have thoughts about the relationship between big tech and government? Leave a comment below or contact me directly.
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