Rotten to the Core:
Bad business and worse ethics? A scandal is brewing in L.A. over a sketchy intiative to give every student an iPad
Technology companies may soon be getting muddied from a long-running scandal at the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), the nation’s second-largest system. A year after the cash-strapped district signed a $1 billion contract with Apple to purchase iPads for every student, the once-ballyhooed deal has blown up. Now the mess threatens to sully other vendors from Cambridge to Cupertino.
LAUSD superintendent John Deasy is under fire for his cozy connections to Apple. In an effort to deflect attention and perhaps to show that “everybody else is doing it,” he’s demanded the release of all correspondence between his board members and technology vendors. It promises to be some juicy reading. But at its core, the LAUSD fiasco illustrates just how much gold lies beneath even the dirtiest, most neglected public schoolyard.
As the U.S. starts implementing federal Common Core State Standards, teachers and administrators are being driven to adopt technology as never before. That has set off a scramble in Silicon Valley to grab as much of the $9 billion K-12 market as possible, and Apple, Google, Cisco and others are mud-wrestling to seize a part of it. Deasy and the LAUSD have given us ringside seats to this match, which shows just how low companies will go.
When the Apple deal was announced a year ago, it was touted as the largest ever distribution of computing devices to American students. The Los Angeles Times ran a story accompanied by a photograph of an African-American girl and her classmate, who looked absolutely giddy about their new gadgets. Readers responded to the photo’s idealistic promise — that every child in Los Angeles, no matter their race or socioeconomic background, would have access to the latest technology, and Deasy himself pledged “to provide youth in poverty with tools that heretofore only rich kids have had.” Laudable as it was, that sentiment assumed that technology would by itself save our underfunded schools and somehow balance our inequitable society.
When I heard about the deal, I felt a wave of déjà vu. I had sat in a PTA meeting at a public school listening to a similar, albeit much smaller, proposed deal. An Apple vendor had approached administrators in a Santa Barbara County school, offering to sell us iPads. The pitch was that we could help propel our kids into the technological age so that they’d be better prepared for the world, and maybe land a nice-paying, high-tech job somewhere down the line. Clearly, a school contract would be great for Apple, giving it a captive group of impressionable 11-year-olds it could then mold into lifelong customers.
But parents had to raise a lot of money to seal this deal. “Is Apple giving us a discount?” asked a fellow PTA member. No, we were told. Apple doesn’t give discounts, not even to schools. In the end, we decided to raise funds for an athletics program and some art supplies instead.
To be fair, PTA moms and dads are no match at the bargaining table for the salespeople at major companies like Google, and Hewlett-Packard. But the LAUSD, with its $6.8 billion budget, had the brains and muscle necessary to negotiate something valuable for its 655,000 students. That was the hope, at least.
Alas, problems began to appear almost immediately. First, some clever LAUSD students hacked the iPads and deleted security filters so they could roam the Internet freely and watch YouTube videos. Then, about $2 million in iPads and other devices went “missing.” Worse was the discovery that the pricey curriculum software, developed by Pearson Education Corp., wasn’t even complete. And the board looked foolish when it had to pay even more money to buy keyboards for iPads so that students could actually type out their reports.
Then, there was the deal itself. Whereas many companies extend discounts to schools and other nonprofits, Apple usually doesn’t, said George Michaels, executive director of Instructional Development at University of California at Santa Barbara. “Whatever discounts Apple gives are pretty meager.” The Chronicle of Philanthropy has noted Apple’s stingy reputation, and CEO Tim Cook has been trying to change the corporation’s miserly ways by giving $50 million to a local hospital and $50 million to an African nonprofit.
But the more we learned about the Apple “deal,” the more the LAUSD board seemed outmaneuvered. The district had bought iPad 4s, which have since been discontinued, but Apple had locked the district into paying high prices for the old models. LAUSD had not checked with its teachers or students to see what they needed or wanted, and instead had forced its end users to make the iPads work. Apple surely knew that kids needed keypads to write reports, but sold them just part of what they needed.
Compared with similar contracts signed by other districts, Apple’s deal for Los Angeles students looked crafty, at best. Perris Union High School District in Riverside County, for example, bought Samsung Chromebooks for only $344 per student. And their laptop devices have keyboards and multiple input ports for printers and thumb drives. The smaller Township High School District 214 in Illinois bought old iPad 2s without the pre-loaded, one-size-fits-all curriculum software. Its price: $429 per student.
But LAUSD paid Apple a jaw-dropping $768 per student, and LAUSD parents were not happy. As Manel Saddique wrote on a social media site: “Btw, thanks for charging a public school district more than the regular consumer price per unit, Apple. Keep it classy…”
By spring there was so much criticism about the purchase that the Los Angeles Times filed a request under the California Public Records Act to obtain all emails and records tied to the contract. What emerged was the image of a smoky backroom deal.
Then-Deputy Superintendent Jaime Aquino had once worked at Pearson, the curriculum developer, and knew the players. It turned out that Aquino and Deasy had started talking with Apple and Pearson two years before the contract was approved, and a full year before it was put out to bid. The idea behind a public bidding process is that every vendor is supposed to have the same opportunity to win a job, depending on their products, delivery terms and price. But emails show that Deasy was intent on embracing just one type of device: Apple’s.
Aquino went so far as to appear in a promotional video for iPads months before the contracts were awarded. Dressed in a suit and tie, the school official smiled for the camera as he talked about how Apple’s product would lead to “huge leaps in what’s possible for students” and would “phenomenally . . . change the landscape of education.” If other companies thought they had a shot at nabbing the massive contract from the influential district, this video must have disabused them of that idea.
At one point, Aquino was actually coaching software devloper Pearson on what to do: “[M]ake sure that your bid is the lower one,” he wrote. Meanwhile, Deasy was emailing Pearson CEO Marjorie Scardino, and effusively recounting his visit with Apple’s CEO. “I wanted to let you know I had an excellent meeting with Tim at Apple last Friday … The meeting went very well and he was fully committed to being a partner … He was very excited.”
If you step back from the smarmy exchanges, a bigger picture emerges. Yes, LAUSD is grossly mismanaged and maybe even dysfunctional. But corporations like Apple don’t look so good, either. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Hewlett Packard — the companies that are cashing in on our classroom crisis are the same ones that helped defund the infrastructure that once made public schools so good. Sheltering billions of dollars from federal taxes may be great for the top 10 percent of Americans, who own 90 percent of the stock in these corporations. But it’s a catastrophe for the teachers, schools and universities that helped develop their technology and gave the companies some of its brightest minds. In the case of LAUSD, Apple comes across as cavalier about the problem it’s helped create for low-income students, and seems more concerned with maximizing its take from the district.
But the worst thing about this scandal is what it’s done to the public trust. The funds for this billion-dollar boondoggle were taken from voter-approved school construction and modernization bonds — bonds that voters thought would be used for physical improvements. At a time when LAUSD schools, like so many across the country, are in desperate need of physical repairs, from corroded gas lines to broken play structures, the Apple deal has cast a shadow over school bonds. Read the popular “Repairs Not iPads” page on Facebook and parents’ complaints about the lack of air conditioning, librarians and even toilet paper in school bathrooms. Sadly, replacing old fixtures and cheap trailers with new plumbing and classrooms doesn’t carry the kind of cachet for ambitious school boards as does, say, buying half-a-million electronic tablets. As one mom wrote: “Deasy has done major long-term damage because not one person will ever vote for any future bond measures supporting public schools.”
Now, the Apple deal is off, although millions of dollars have already been spent. An investigation into the bidding process is underway and there are cries to place Deasy in “teacher jail,” a district policy that keeps teachers at home while they’re under investigation. And LAUSD students, who are overwhelmingly Hispanic and African-American, have once again been given the short end of the stick. They were promised the sort of “tools that heretofore only rich kids have had,” and will probably not see them for several years, if ever. The soured Apple deal just adds to the sense of injustice that many of these students already see in the grown-up world.
Deasy contends that that he did nothing wrong. In a few weeks, the public official will get his job performance review. In the meantime, he’s called for the release of all emails and documents written between board members and other Silicon Valley and corporate education vendors. The heat in downtown Los Angeles is spreading to Northern California and beyond, posing a huge political problem for not just Deasy but for Cook and other high-tech captains.
But at the bottom of this rush to place technology in every classroom is the nagging feeling that the goal in buying expensive devices is not to improve teachers’ abilities, or to lighten their load. It’s not to create more meaningful learning experiences for students or to lift them out of poverty or neglect. It’s to facilitate more test-making and profit-taking for private industry, and quick, too, before there’s nothing left.
Kathleen Sharp reports on business and entertainment from Southern California.
Deep learning could transform artificial intelligence. It could also get pretty creepy.
In June 2012, a Google supercomputer made an artificial-intelligence breakthrough: It learned that the internet loves cats. But here’s the remarkable part: It had never been told what a cat looks like. Researchers working on the Google Brain project in the company’s X lab fed 10 million random, unlabeled images from YouTube into their massive network and instructed it to recognize the basic elements of a picture and how they fit together. Left to their own devices, the Brain’s 16,000 central processing units noticed that a lot of the images shared similar characteristics that it eventually recognized as a “cat.” While the Brain’s self-taught knack for kitty spotting was nowhere as good as a human’s, it was nonetheless a major advance in the exploding field of deep learning.
The dream of a machine that can think and learn like a person has long been the holy grail of computer scientists, sci-fi fans, and futurists alike. Deep learning—algorithms inspired by the human brain and its ability to soak up massive amounts of information and make complex predictions—might be the closest thing yet. Right now, the technology is in its infancy: Much like a baby, the Google Brain taught itself how to recognize cats, but it’s got a long way to go before it can figure out that you’re sad because your tabby died. But it’s just a matter of time. Its potential to revolutionize everything from social networking to surveillance has sent tech companies and defense and intelligence agencies on a deep-learning spending spree.
What really puts deep learning on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI) is that its algorithms can analyze things like human behavior and then make sophisticated predictions. What if a social-networking site could figure out what you’re wearing from your photos and then suggest a new dress? What if your insurance company could diagnose you as diabetic without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you on the subway is carrying a bomb?
— and not just on Facebook
Nobody is gathering more information more quickly than the providers of digital services. But do you trust them?
This is how the tech P.R. wars of the future will be waged: “Trust us, because we will take care of your precious information better than the other guy.”
On Aug. 21, Square, the mobile-payments start-up helmed by Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, announced the release of a new package of analytical tools available for free to any merchant that uses Square.
Small businesses, argued the press release, tend not to have the same access to advanced data crunching as larger operations. Square Analytics “levels the playing field” and “delivers sellers actionable data to increase sales and better serve their customers.” Want to know exactly how much a bad snow storm affected your cupcake sales, or what kind of advanced coffee products your repeat customers crave the most on Tuesday mornings? Square Analytics has the answers!
A few hours after Square’s announcement, I received an email from a man who handles press relations for Shopkeep, a company that offers point-of-sale processing via the iPad, and has apparently been touting its own small business analytics support for years. Judging by the accusations made in the email, Shopkeep was none too pleased by the debut of Square’s new service.
“Square is more interested in collecting and selling data than it is in helping small businesses grow,” read the email. My correspondent further alleged that Square’s “terms and conditions” gave Square the right to do anything it wanted with the data it collected on retail transactions.
Picture this: I order coffee at a coffee shop that uses Square … Square, not the cafe, seizes the data on that transaction and emails me a receipt. The company can sell that data to the highest bidder — another coffee shop up the street or the closest Starbucks. Then I could get an email from that other coffee shop, not the one I’m a regular at, offering me a discount or some other incentive to come in.
Shopkeep, in contrast, would never do such a dastardly thing.
I contacted Square and asked spokesperson Aaron Zamost if the coffee shop scenario was realistic. Unsurprisingly, he dismissed it out of hand. “No, we do not intend to do this,” said Zamost. “We do not surface, nor do we have any plans to surface individualized transaction data to any sellers besides the one who made the sale. Our sellers trust us to be transparent with them and respectful of what they share with us. If we were to violate their trust, or behave as other companies have been known to, they would leave us.”
I have no evidence to prove or disprove the allegations made by Shopkeep or the defense offered by Square. The interesting point is that the nature of the accusation is an attempt to poke at what is clearly a sore spot in Silicon Valley in 2014. In these post-Snowden days, how tech companies handle data is a volatile issue. In fact, it might be the biggest issue of them all. Because Shopkeep and Square are hardly alone in their ability to amass valuable information. Every company that offers a service over your mobile device — whether processing a sale, hiring a car, locating a room to stay in — is in the data business. Everyone is a data broker. As Silicon Valley likes to say, in the 21st century data is the new oil. What rarely gets mentioned afterward, however, is the fact that the oil business, especially when it was just getting started, was very, very dirty.
* * *
Square has a cool product: A plastic card reader that plugs into the headphone jack of your phone and enables anyone with a bank account to start processing credit card transactions. Although Square has yet to turn a profit, and has weathered some bad press in recent months, the company does process $30 billion worth of transactions a year. That’s a lot of information available to crunch.
Of course, there are plenty of companies, starting with the credit card firms themselves, that are already slicing and dicing payment transaction info and offering analysis to whomever can pay for it. Square is just one more player in a very crowded field. But Square is nevertheless emblematic of an important trend — let’s call it the disruptive democratization of data brokering. Once upon a time, a handful of obscure, operating-behind-the-scenes firms dominated the data-brokering business. But now that everything’s digital, everyone with a digital business can be a data broker.
In an increasing number of cases it appears that the ostensible service offered by the latest free app isn’t actually what the app-maker plans to make money off; it’s just the lure that brings in the good stuff — the monetizable data. Square may be a payments processing company first, but it is rapidly amassing huge amounts of data, which is in itself a valuable commodity, a point confirmed by Square executive Gokul Rajaram to Fortune Magazine earlier this year.
Similarly, Uber is ostensibly a car hiring company but is also poised to know more about our transportation habits than just about any other single player. Almost every app on your phone — even the flashlight app — is simultaneously performing a service for you, and gathering data about you.
Increasingly, as the accusations about Square from a competitor demonstrate, we may end up deciding whom we choose for our services based on whether we trust them as responsible safekeepers of our data.
Until this year, most Americans have had only the sketchiest knowledge of how huge the marketplace is for our personal information. In May the FTC released a report that looked at the nine biggest data brokers — companies that specialize in amassing huge dossiers on every living person in the Western world. The numbers are startling.
Data brokers collect and store a vast amount of data on almost every U.S. household and commercial transaction. Of the nine data brokers, one data broker’s database has information on 1.4 billion consumer transactions and over 700 billion aggregated data elements; another data broker’s database covers one trillion dollars in consumer transactions; and yet another data broker adds three billion new records each month to its databases.
The big data brokers build their databases by snarfling up every single source of information they can find or buy. Databases operated by federal, state and local governments are an obvious source, but the big data brokers also routinely scrape social media sites and blogs, and also buy commercial databases from a vast variety of enterprises, as well as from other data brokers.
Today, nobody is gathering more information more quickly than the providers of digital services. Surveillance Valley, indeed! Analytics companies know the constellation of apps on your phone, including your every click and swipe, down to the most granular level.
The rules regarding what can be done with this information are in their infancy. For now, we depend largely on what the companies say in their own terms and conditions. But we would be unwise to regard those as permanently binding legally promises. They can change at any time — something that Facebook has demonstrated repeatedly. What Square says now, in other words, might not be what Square does in the future, especially if the company finds itself in dire need of cash.
When everyone is a data broker, having standardized rules governing what can be done with our information becomes a pressing social priority. Right now it’s just a big mess.
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.
Silicon Valley has been in the media spotlight for its role in gentrifying and raising rents in San Francisco, helping the NSA spy on American citizens, and lack of racial and gender diversity. Despite that, Silicon Valley still has a reputation for benevolence, innocence and progressivism. Hence Google’s phrase, “Don’t be evil.” A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that, even after the Snowden leaks, 53% of those surveyed had high confidence in the tech industry. The tech industry is not seen as evil as, say, Wall Street or Big Oil.
One aspect of Silicon Valley that would damage this reputation has not been scrutinized enough—its involvement in American militarism. Silicon Valley’s ties to the National Security State extend beyond the NSA’s PRISM program. Through numerous partnerships and contracts with the U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement agencies, Silicon Valley is part of the American military-industrial complex. Google sells its technologies to the U.S. military, FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, NGA, and other intelligence and law enforcement agencies, has managers with backgrounds in military and intelligence work, and partners with defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Amazon designed a cloud computing system that will be used by the CIA and every other intelligence agency. The CIA-funded tech company Palantir sells its data-mining and analysis software to the U.S. military, CIA, LAPD, NYPD, and other security agencies. These technologies have several war-zone and intelligence-gathering applications.
First, a little background to explain how the military has been involved with Silicon Valley since its conception as a technology center. Silicon Valley’s roots date back to World War II, according to a presentation by researcher and entrepreneur Steve Blank. During the war, the U.S. government funded a secret lab at Harvard University to research how to disrupt Germany’s radar-guided electronic air defense system. The solution — drop aluminum foil in front of German radars to jam them. This birthed modern electronic warfare and signals intelligence. The head of that lab was Stanford engineering professor Fred Terman who, after World War II, took 11 staffers from that lab to create Stanford’s Electronic Research Lab (ERL), which received funding from the military. Stanford also had an Applied Electronics Lab(AEL) that did classified research in jammers and electronic intelligence for the military.
In fact, much of AEL’s research aided the U.S. war in Vietnam. This made the lab a target for student antiwar protesters who nonviolently occupied the lab in April 1969 and demanded an end to classified research at Stanford. After nearly a year of teach-ins, protests, and violent clashes with the police, Stanford effectively eliminated war-related classified research at the university.
The ERL did research in and designed microwave tubes and electronic receivers and jammers. This helped the U.S. military and intelligence agencies spy on the Soviet Union and jam their air defense systems. Local tube companies and contractors developed the technologies based on that research. Some researchers from ERL also founded microwave companies in the area. This created a boon of microwave and electronic startups that ultimately formed the Silicon Valley known today.
Don’t be evil, Google
Last year, the first Snowden documents revealed that Google, Facebook, Yahoo!, and other major tech companies provided the NSA access to their users’ data through the PRISM program. All the major tech companies denied knowledge of PRISM and put up an adversarial public front to government surveillance. However, Al Jazeera America’s Jason Leopold obtained, via FOIA request, two sets of email communications between former NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander and Google executives Sergey Brin and Eric Schmidt. The communications, according to Leopold, suggest “a far cozier working relationship between some tech firms and the U.S. government than was implied by Silicon Valley brass” and that “not all cooperation was under pressure.” In the emails, Alexander and the Google executives discussed information sharing related to national security purposes.
But PRISM is the tip of the iceberg. Several tech companies are deeply in bed with the U.S. military, intelligence agencies, and defense contractors. One very notable example is Google. Google markets and sells its technology to the U.S. military and several intelligence and law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, and NGA.
Google has a contract with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) that allows the agency to use Google Earth Builder. The NGA provides geospatial intelligence, such as satellite imagery and mapping, to the military and other intelligence agencies like the NSA. In fact, NGA geospatial intelligence helped the military and CIA locate and kill Osama bin Laden. This contract allows the NGA to utilize Google’s mapping technology for geospatial intelligence purposes. Google’s Official Enterprise Blog announced that “Google’s work with NGA marks one of the first major government geospatial cloud initiatives, which will enable NGA to use Google Earth Builder to host its geospatial data and information. This allows NGA to customize Google Earth & Maps to provide maps and globes to support U.S. government activities, including: U.S. national security; homeland security; environmental impact and monitoring; and humanitarian assistance, disaster response and preparedness efforts.”
Google Earth’s technology “got its start in the intelligence community, in a CIA-backed firm called Keyhole,” which Google purchased in 2004, according to the Washington Post. PandoDaily reporter Yasha Levine, who has extensively reported on Google’s ties to the military and intelligence community, points out that Keyhole’s “main product was an application called EarthViewer, which allowed users to fly and move around a virtual globe as if they were in a video game.”
In 2003, a year before Google bought Keyhole, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy, until it was saved by In-Q-Tel, a CIA-funded venture capital firm. The CIA worked with other intelligence agencies to fit Keyhole’s systems to its needs. According to the CIA Museum page, “The finished product transformed the way intelligence officers interacted with geographic information and earth imagery. Users could now easily combine complicated sets of data and imagery into clear, realistic visual representations. Users could ‘fly’ from space to street level seamlessly while interactively exploring layers of information including roads, schools, businesses, and demographics.”
How much In-Q-Tel invested into Keyhole is classified. However, Levine writes that “the bulk of the funds didn’t come from the CIA’s intelligence budget — as they normally do with In-Q-Tel — but from the NGA, which provided the money on behalf of the entire ‘Intelligence Community.’ As a result, equity in Keyhole was held by two major intelligence agencies.” Shortly after In-Q-Tel bought Keyhole, the NGA (then known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency or NIMA) announced it immediately used Keyhole’s technology to support U.S. troops in Iraq at the 2003-2011 war. The next year, Google purchased Keyhole and used its technology to develop Google Earth.
Four years after Google purchased Keyhole, in 2008, Google and the NGA purchased GeoEye-1, the world’s highest-resolution satellite, from the company GeoEye. The NGA paid for half of the satellite’s $502 million development and committed to purchasing its imagery. Because of a government restriction, Google gets lower-resolution images but still retains exclusive access to the satellite’s photos. GeoEye later merged into DigitalGlobe in 2013.
Google’s relationship to the National Security State extends beyond contracts with the military and intelligence agencies. Many managers in Google’s public sector division come from the U.S. military and intelligence community, according to one of Levine’s reports.
Michele R. Weslander-Quaid is one example. She became Google’s Innovation Evangelist and Chief Technology Officer of the company’s public sector division in 2011. Before joining Google, since 9/11, Weslander-Quaid worked throughout the military and intelligence world in positions at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Office of the Director of National Intelligence, National Reconnaissance Office, and later, the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Levine noted that Weslander-Quaid also “toured combat zones in both Iraq and Afghanistan in order to see the tech needs of the military first-hand.”
Throughout her years working in the intelligence community, Weslander-Quaid “shook things up by dropping archaic software and hardware and convincing teams to collaborate via web tools” and “treated each agency like a startup,” according to a 2014 Entrepreneur Magazine profile. She was a major advocate for web tools and cloud-based software and was responsible for implementing them at the agencies she worked at. At Google, Weslander-Quaid’s job is to meet “with agency directors to map technological paths they want to follow, and helps Google employees understand what’s needed to work with public-sector clients.” Weslander-Quaid told Entrepreneur, “A big part of my job is to translate between Silicon Valley speak and government dialect” and “act as a bridge between the two cultures.”
Another is Shannon Sullivan, head of defense and intelligence at Google. Before working at Google, Sullivan served in the U.S. Air Force working at various intelligence positions. First as senior military advisor and then in the Air Force’s C4ISR Acquisition and Test; Space Operations, Foreign Military Sales unit. C4ISR stands for “Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance.” Sullivan left his Air Force positions to work as Defense Director for BAE Systems, a British-based arms and defense company, and then Army and Air Force COCOMs Director at Oracle. His last project at Google was “setting up a Google Apps ‘transformational’ test program to supply 50,000 soldiers in the US Army and DoD with a customized Google App Universe”, according to Levine.
Google not only has a revolving door with the Pentagon and intelligence community, it also partners with defense and intelligence contractors. Levine writes that “in recent years, Google has increasingly taken the role of subcontractor: selling its wares to military and intelligence agencies by partnering with established military contractors.”
The company’s partners include two of the biggest American defense contractors — Lockheed Martin, an aerospace, defense, and information security company, and Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense technology company. Both Lockheed and Northrop produce aircraft, missiles and defense systems, naval and radar systems, unmanned systems, satellites, information technology, and other defense-related technologies. In 2011, Lockheed Martin made $36.3 billion in arms sales, while Northrop Grumman made $21.4 billion. Lockheed has a major office in Sunnyvale, California, right in the middle of Silicon Valley. Moreover, Lockheed was also involved in interrogating prisoners in Iraq and Guantanamo, through its purchase of Sytex Corporation and the information technology unit of Affiliated Computer Services (ACS), both of whom directly interrogated detainees.
Google worked with Lockheed to design geospatial technologies. In 2007, describing the company as “Google’s partner,” the Washington Post reported that Lockheed “demonstrated a Google Earth product that it helped design for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s work in Iraq. These included displays of key regions of the country and outlined Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, as well as U.S. and Iraqi military bases in the city. Neither Lockheed nor Google would say how the geospatial agency uses the data.” Meanwhile, Google has a $1-million contract with Northrop to install a Google Earth plug-in.
Both Lockheed and Northrop manufacture and sell unmanned systems, also known as drones. Lockheed’s drones include the Stalker, which can stay airborne for 48 hours; Desert Hawk III, a small reconnaissance drone used by British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the RQ-170 Sentinel, a high-altitude stealth reconnaissance drone used by the U.S. Air Force and CIA. RQ-170s have been used in Afghanistan and for the raidthat killed Osama bin Laden. One American RQ-170 infamously crashed in Iran while on a surveillance mission over the country in late 2011.
Northrop Grumman built the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude surveillance drone used by the Air Force and Navy. Northrop is also building a new stealth drone for the Air Force called the RQ-180, which may be operational by 2015. In 2012, Northrop sold $1.2 billion worth of drones to South Korea.
Google is also cashing in on the drone market. It recently purchased drone manufacturer Titan Aerospace, which makes high-altitude, solar-powered drones that can “stay in the air for years without needing to land,” reported the Wire. Facebook entered into talks to buy the company a month before Google made the purchase.
Last December, Google purchased Boston Dynamics, a major engineering and robotics company that receives funding from the military for its projects. According to the Guardian, “Funding for the majority of the most advanced Boston Dynamics robots comes from military sources, including the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the US army, navy and marine corps.” Some of these DARPA-funded projects include BigDog, Legged Squad Support System (LS3), Cheetah, WildCat, and Atlas, all of which are autonomous, walking robots. Altas is humanoid, while BigDog, LS3, Cheetah, WildCat are animal-like quadrupeds. In addition to Boston Dynamics, Google purchased eight robotics companies in 2013—Industrial Perception, Redwood Robotics, Meka, Schaft, Holomni, Bot & Dolly, and Autofuss. Google has been tight-lipped about the specifics of its plans for the robotics companies. But some sources told the New York Times that Google’s robotics efforts are not aimed at consumers but rather manufacturing, such as automating supply chains.
Google’s “Enterprise Government” page also lists military/intelligence contractors Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and Blackbird Technologies among the companies it partners with. In particularly, Blackbird is a military contractor that supplies locators for “the covert ‘tagging, tracking and locating’ of suspected enemies,” according to Wired. Its customers include the U.S. Navy and U.S. Special Operations Command. SOCOM oversees the U.S. military’s special operations forces units, such as the Navy SEALs, Delta Force, Army Rangers, and Green Berets. Blackbird even sent some employees as armed operatives on secret missions with special operations forces. The company’s vice president is Cofer Black, a former CIA operative who ran the agency’s Counterterrorist Center before 9/11.
Palantir and the military
Many others tech companies are working with military and intelligence agencies. Amazon recently developed a $600 million cloud computing system for the CIA that will also service all 17 intelligence agencies. Both Amazon and the CIA have said little to nothing about the system’s capabilities.
Palantir, which is based in Palo Alto, California produces and sells data-mining and analysis software. Its customers include the U.S. Marine Corps, U.S. Special Operations Command, CIA, NSA, FBI, Defense Intelligence Agency, Department of Homeland Security, National Counterterrorism Center, LAPD, and NYPD. In California, the Northern California Regional Intelligence Center (NCRIC), one of 72 federally run fusion centers built across the nation since 9/11, uses Palantir software to collect and analyze license plate photos.
While Google sells its wares to whomever in order to make a profit, Palantir, as a company, isn’t solely dedicated to profit-maximizing. Counterterrorism has been part of the company’s mission since it began. The company was founded in 2004 by investor Alex Karp, who is the company’s chief executive, and billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel. In 2003, Thiel came up with the idea to develop software to fight terrorism based on PayPal’s fraud recognition software. The CIA’s In-Q-Tel helped jumpstart the company by investing $2 million. The rest of the company’s $30 million start-up costs were funded by Thiel and his venture capital fund.
Palantir’s software has “a user-friendly search tool that can scan multiple data sources at once, something previous search tools couldn’t do,” according to a 2009 Wall Street Journal profile. The software fills gaps in intelligence “by using a ‘tagging’ technique similar to that used by the search functions on most Web sites. Palantir tags, or categorizes, every bit of data separately, whether it be a first name, a last name or a phone number.” Analysts can quickly categorize information as it comes in. The software’s ability to scan and categorize multiple sources of incoming data helps analysts connect the dots among large and different pools of information — signals intelligence, human intelligence, geospatial intelligence, and much more. All this data is collected and analyzed in Palantir’s system. This makes it useful for war-related, intelligence, and law enforcement purposes. That is why so many military, police, and intelligence agencies want Palantir’s software.
U.S. troops in Afghanistan who used Palantir’s software, particularly the Marines and SOCOM, found it very helpful for their missions. Commanders liked Palantir’s ability to direct them at insurgents who “build and bury homemade bombs, the biggest killer of U.S. troops in Afghanistan,” the Washington Times reported. A Government Accountability Office report said Palantir’s software “gained a reputation for being intuitive and easy to use, while also providing effective tools to link and visualize data.” Special operations forces found Palantir to be “a highly effective system for conducting intelligence information analysis and supporting operations” and “provided flexibility to support mobile, disconnected users out on patrols or conducting missions.” Many within the military establishment are pushing to have other branches, such as the Army, adopt Palantir’s software in order to improve intelligence-sharing.
Palantir’s friends include people from the highest echelons of the National Security State. Former CIA Director George Tenet and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are advisers to Palantir, while former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus “considers himself a friend of Palantir CEO Alex Karp”, according to Forbes. Tenet told Forbes, “I wish I had Palantir when I was director. I wish we had the tool of its power because it not only slice and dices today, but it gives you an enormous knowledge management tool to make connections for analysts that go back five, six, six, eight, 10 years. It gives you a shot at your data that I don’t think any product that we had at the time did.”
Silicon Valley’s technology has numerous battlefield applications, which is something the U.S. military notices. Since the global war on terror began, the military has had a growing need for high-tech intelligence-gathering and other equipment. “A key challenge facing the military services is providing users with the capabilities to analyze the huge amount of intelligence data being collected,” the GAO report said. The proliferation of drones, counter-insurgency operations, sophisticated intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) systems, and new technologies and sensors changed how intelligence is used in counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan and counterterrorism operations in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries.
According to the report, “The need to integrate the large amount of available intelligence data, including the ability to synthesize information from different types of intelligence sources (e.g., HUMINT, SIGINT, GEOINT, and open source), has become increasingly important in addressing, for example, improvised explosive device threats and tracking the activities of certain components of the local population.” This is where Palantir’s software comes in handy. It does what the military needs — data-mining and intelligence analysis. That is why it is used by SOCOM and other arms of the National Security State.
Irregular wars against insurgents and terrorist groups present two problems— finding the enemy and killing them. This is because such groups know how to mix in with, and are usually part of, the local population. Robotic weapons, such as drones, present “an asymmetric solution to an asymmetric problem,” according to a Foster-Miller executive quoted in P.W. Singer’s book Wired for War. Drones can hover over a territory for long periods of time and launch a missile at a target on command without putting American troops in harm’s way, making them very attractive weapons.
Additionally, the U.S. military and intelligence agencies are increasingly relying on signals intelligence to solve this problem. Signals intelligence monitors electronic signals, such as phone calls and conversations, emails, radio or radar signals, and electronic communications. Intelligence analysts or troops on the ground will collect and analyze the electronic communications, along with geospatial intelligence, of adversaries to track their location, map human behavior, and carry out lethal operations.
Robert Steele, a former Marine, CIA case officer, and current open source intelligence advocate, explained the utility of signals intelligence. “Signals intelligence has always relied primarily on seeing the dots and connecting the dots, not on knowing what the dots are saying. When combined with a history of the dots, and particularly the dots coming together in meetings, or a black (anonymous) cell phone residing next to a white (known) cellphone, such that the black acquires the white identity by extension, it becomes possible to ‘map’ human activity in relation to weapons caches, mosques, meetings, etcetera,” he said in an email interview. Steele added the “only advantage” to signals intelligence “is that it is very very expensive and leaves a lot of money on the table for pork and overhead.”
In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) commandos combined images from surveillance drones with the tracking of mobile phone numbers to analyze insurgent networks. Commandos then used this analysis to locate and capture or kill their intended targets during raids. Oftentimes, however, this led to getting the wrong person. Steele added that human and open source intelligence are “vastly superior to signals intelligence 95% of the time” but “are underfunded precisely because they are not expensive and require face to face contact with foreigners, something the US Government is incompetent at, and Silicon Valley could care less.”
Capt. Michael Kearns, a retired U.S. and Australian Air Force intelligence officer and former SERE instructor with experience working in Silicon Valley, explained how digital information makes it easier for intelligence agencies to collect data. In an email, he told AlterNet, “Back in the day when the world was analog, every signal was one signal. Some signals contained a broad band of information contained within, however, there were no ‘data packets’ embedded within the electromagnetic spectrum. Therefore, collecting a signal, or a phone conversation, was largely the task of capturing / decoding / processing some specifically targeted, singular source. Today, welcome to the digital era. Data ‘packets’ flow as if like water, with pieces and parts of all things ‘upstream’ contained within. Therefore, the task today for a digital society is largely one of collecting everything, so as to fully unwrap and exploit the totality of the captured data in an almost exploratory manner. And therein lies the apparent inherently unconstitutional-ness of wholesale collection of digital data…it’s almost like ‘pre-crime.'”
One modern use of signals intelligence is in the United States’ extrajudicial killing program, a major component of the global war on terror. The extrajudicial killing program began during the Bush administration as a means to kill suspected terrorists around the world without any due process. However, as Bush focused on the large-occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the extrajudicial killing program was less emphasized.
The Obama administration continued the war on terror but largely shifted away from large-scale occupations to emphasizing CIA/JSOC drone strikes, airstrikes, cruise missile attacks,proxies, and raids by special operations forces against suspected terrorists and other groups. Obama continued and expanded Bush’s assassination program, relying on drones and special operations forces to do the job. According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, U.S. drone strikes and other covert operations have killed nearly 3,000 to over 4,800 people, including 500 to over 1,000 civilians, in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. During Obama’s five years in office, over 2,400 people were killed by U.S. drone strikes. Most of those killed by drone strikes are civilians or low-level fighters and, in Pakistan, only 2 percent were high-level militants. Communities living under drone strikes are regularly terrorized and traumatized by them.
Targeting for drone strikes is based on metadata analysis and geolocating the cell phone SIM card of a suspected terrorist, according to a report by the Intercept. This intelligence is provided by the NSA and given to the CIA or JSOC which will then carry out the drone strike. However, it is very common for people in countries like Yemen or Pakistan to hold multiple SIM cards, hand their cell phones to family and friends, and groups like the Taliban to randomly hand out SIM cards among their fighters to confuse trackers.
Since this methodology targets a SIM card linked to a suspect rather than an actual person, innocent civilians are regularly killed unintentionally. To ensure the assassination program will continue, the National Counterterrorism Center developed the “disposition matrix,” a database that continuously adds the names, locations, and associates of suspected terrorists to kill-or-capture lists.
The Defense Department’s 2015 budget proposal requests $495.6 billion, down $0.4 billion from last year, and decreases the Army to around 440,000 to 450,000 troops from the post-9/11 peak of 570,000. But it protects money — $5.1 billion — for cyberwarfare and special operations forces, giving SOCOM $7.7 billion, a 10 percent increase from last year, and 69,700 personnel. Thus, these sorts of operations will likely continue.
As the United States emphasizes cyberwarfare, special operations, drone strikes, electronic-based forms of intelligence, and other tactics of irregular warfare to wage perpetual war, sophisticated technology will be needed. Silicon Valley is the National Security State’s go-to industry for this purpose.
This will come as news only to people who have not attended Burning Man in the last couple of years, but the New York Times has just caught on to the fact that Silicon Valley millionaires (and billionaires) have been attending the desert festival in greater numbers and quickly ruining it with their displays of wealth. While we used to call Coachella “Burning Man Lite for Angelenos,” Burning Man itself is quickly becoming Coachella on Crack for rich tech folk who want to get naked and do bong hits with Larry Page in Elon Musk’s decked-out RV.
Burners won’t just be sharing the playa with Larry and Sergey, Zuck, Grover Norquist, and at least one Winklevoss twin this year. There will also be a legion of new millionaires, most of them probably Burning Man virgins, who will be living in the lap of luxury and occasionally dropping in on your parties to ask for molly.
Per the Times piece:
“We used to have R.V.s and precooked meals,” said a man who attends Burning Man with a group of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. (He asked not to be named so as not to jeopardize those relationships.) “Now, we have the craziest chefs in the world and people who build yurts for us that have beds and air-conditioning.” He added with a sense of amazement, “Yes, air-conditioning in the middle of the desert!”His camp includes about 100 people from the Valley and Hollywood start-ups, as well as several venture capital firms. And while dues for most non-tech camps run about $300 a person, he said his camp’s fees this year were $25,000 a person. A few people, mostly female models flown in from New York, get to go free, but when all is told, the weekend accommodations will collectively cost the partygoers over $2 million.
“Anyone who has been going to Burning Man for the last five years is now seeing things on a level of expense or flash that didn’t exist before,” said Brian Doherty, author of the book “This Is Burning Man.” “It does have this feeling that, ‘Oh, look, the rich people have moved into my neighborhood.’ It’s gentrifying.”
The blockaded camps of the tech gentrifiers have tended to be in the outer rings of Black Rock City, as was previously reported in 2011 when a guest of Elon Musk’s spoke to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re out of the thick of it,” he said, “so we’re not offending the more elaborate or involved set ups.”
But as Silicon Valley assumes more and more of a presence on the playa, what’s to stop them from claiming better and better real estate, closer to where the action is?
You won’t see any evidence of this on Facebook, though. All of this happens without the tech world’s usual passion for documentation, since they do abide by at least that one tenet of Burning Man culture that frowns on photography. And at least, as of 2014, they seem to understand that their displays of wealth aren’t all that welcome, and should probably be kept on the down-low.
But seriously? Models flown in from New York? Gross.