Jack Poulson has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of how tech companies are evolving into military contractors. Tracking such intricate connections has become a full-time, though unpaid, job for the former Google research scientist as head of Tech Inquiry, a small non-profit tackling the giant task of exposing ties between Silicon Valley and the US military.
“Google, and tech companies in general, transitioning into weapons development is something that should be paid close attention to,” says Poulson. “And certainly employees of the company should have a voice in whether that work is performed.”
By delving through government contracting information and lobbying disclosures, and filing FOIA requests, Tech Inquiry has produced a set of custom databases for activists, journalists, and other researchers to probe tech-government connections. Its research covers the US government as well as close intelligence allies, such as the UK and Canada. The group has also put out three dense reports that have been the foundation for many news articles. And it’s collaborating with advocacy groups to research the complex dealings and structures of tech firms.
Tech Inquiry’s latest report reveals (among many other things) Microsoft’s substantial role in a military drone AI program called Project Maven. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the same program caused a huge rift at Google in 2018 when thousands of employees objected to the “Don’t be evil” company contributing AI tech to a killer drone program. Google ultimately left Maven, but its peers in tech continued with little public notice.
FROM TEAM PLAYER TO DISSIDENT
It was another Google controversy that gave Poulson international status. In 2018, when he was an AI researcher at the company, he encountered source code for Project Dragonfly, a version of Google’s namesake search engine being developed for mainland China. It contained a blacklist of forbidden queries, including the term “human rights.” Google’s facilitation of Chinese government censorship was well known within the company, but Poulson made news by taking a stand against it in a public resignation.
Poulson’s resignation letter quickly made him a spokesperson for tech worker opposition, with appeal to both the left and the right. “It was a reasonably bipartisan issue — actually, if anything, Republicans cared more about it than Democrats,” he says. “I wasn’t criticising the United States. From my perspective, I was criticising Google. But I’m sure from a lot of people’s perspectives, they were onboard because it included a critique of China.”
Poulson’s advocacy extended beyond censorship to also opposing Google’s work on military contracts, such as Maven. And he found himself invited to confidential meetings between tech CEOs and senior officials from the Department of Defence and intelligence agencies, who looked to him as the voice of techies opposed to working on weapons systems. “I’m not quite so sure I had any significant impact on what their opinions were,” he says. “But I certainly learned a lot about what sorts of relationships existed and who attended those sorts of meetings.”
Exposing those relationships became the goal of Tech Inquiry, which Poulson formed in summer 2019, along with four other tech experts. They include fellow Google dissidents Irene Knapp and Laura Nolan, anti-surveillance advocate Liz O’Sullivan, and tech consultant Shauna Gordon-McKeon.
“Both Liz and Laura have played very significant roles in the campaign to stop killer robots,” says Poulson. Knapp is also a privacy advocate. And Gordon-McKeon develops open-source software to help groups govern themselves online.
Unsurprisingly given its founders’ backgrounds, the organization employs a fair amount of technology. Working at Google, Poulson specialized in natural language processing and recommendation systems. While we mostly encounter recommendation engines in features, such as Netflix suggestions and TikTok feeds, the tech goes much further.
Tech Inquiry sets it loose on data, such as federal procurement records, to understand connections between companies and the government. It also analyses language on company websites to find similarities between them.
The result is a recommendation system that guides research by Tech Inquiry or anyone who uses its tools. “Maybe they know about (data analysis firm) Palantir, but they don’t know about, say, a Black Cape or a Fivecast or one of those companies,” says Poulson. “Having a recommendation system helps fill in some of those similarities.”
But there’s still plenty of manual labour. Tech Inquiry’s previous report, Death and Taxes, documented how technology and defence companies benefited from the Trump corporate tax cuts and how much they have been able to avoid in federal taxes.
The report, which covered 57 publicly traded companies, required reading through and collating over 1,000 financial filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
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