It’s high time for the high-tech sector to support Defense

It’s high time for the high-tech sector to support Defense
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The cultural gap between the tech world of Silicon Valley, North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Massachusetts Route 128, and Austin, Texas, on the one hand, and the Department of Defense (DOD) on the other, shows no sign of getting any smaller. For years, the proprietors and workers of the non-defense industrial base refused to work with the U.S. government in general, and DOD in particular.

Company managers and boards felt that their access to worldwide markets, notably in China, far outweighed whatever benefits of selling to DOD might offer. And those benefits have been perceived as few and far between. Profit margins rarely exceed 8 percent, while DOD usually claims intellectual property rights so that it can compete any given product among multiple suppliers.

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There is, however, another reason why some high-tech companies have been ambivalent about  working with DOD: Tech workers consider doing business with DOD (and, for that matter, with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) unethical and immoral. The competition for a $10 billion DOD contract to develop JEDI — the acronym for Joint Defense Enterprise Infrastructure — highlights ongoing tensions between the department and the high-tech sector. JEDI is meant to provide a secure cloud-based upgrade to DOD’s infrastructure that will allow it better to adapt combat forces and back-office support to advances in artificial intelligence and big-data analysis.

This is exactly the kind of work to which high-tech workers have objected. Thousands of Google employees protested Google’s intention to bid on the contract, and some indicated that they would refuse to support it if were awarded to Google. Google’s employees protested so vigorously against the company’s decision to bid on the contract that on Oct. 8 it announced its withdrawal from the competition.

Microsoft employees also have protested, but thus far to no avail. Microsoft will continue to bid on the project, as will Amazon, Oracle and IBM, though the latter two companies have filed protests to the Government Accountability Office that the contract is being “wired” to Amazon, and that it should instead be recast as a multiple-award contract.

JEDI is not the first contract involving cutting-edge technology that will be awarded to the commercial high-tech sector. Despite protests from employees and civil liberties groups, Amazon successfully marketed its Rekognition facial recognition system both to DOD and DHS. In addition, in 2013, Amazon won a $600 million cloud contract for the CIA, the bane of civil liberties groups since the Nixon era.

For its part, in April 2017, Google began work on Project Maven, officially known as the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Function Team, which employs artificial intelligence to study imagery and thereby enhance drone performance on the battlefield. Thirty-one hundred Google employees signed an open letter to CEO Sundar Pichai, protesting Google’s participation in the project. As a result of employee pressure, Google announced in July 2018 that it will not compete for the Project Maven contract when it comes up for renewal in 2019. Microsoft and Amazon also are participating in Project Maven, but neither company appears ready to withdraw from competition for the follow-on effort.

In any event, it has become clear that high-tech employees will continue to protest against companies doing business with the government national security community. DOD, therefore, must undertake a concerted effort to reach out to company employees — not just to senior corporate officials — to explain why it is essential that the commercial sector work hand-in-hand with the national security community. In contrast to the United States, China, America’s major long-term challenger, controls all of its high-tech sector either directly or indirectly.

The only way that America can maintain its technological superiority is through a partnership with its high-tech industries. As Amazon’s Jeff Bezos told the Wired 25 conference in October, “If big-tech companies are going to turn their back on the Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble.” There is no reason to doubt the ethical concerns of America’s high-tech employees; now, however, is the time for them to demonstrate their patriotism as well.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.