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Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.

Jun 12, 2018

Google’s contract with the Pentagon for Project Maven — a controversial drone imaging program that uses artificial intelligence — prompted over 4,000 Google employees to sign a petition opposing the project, and about a dozen workers resigned in protest. In response, Google Cloud CEO Diane Greene announced that the contract will not be extended, and that “there will be no follow-on to Maven.”

Yasha Levine has covered Silicon Valley for years, and his new book Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet (PublicAffairs, February 6, 2018) details Google’s fifteen-year history of selling search, mapping, and satellite imagery services to the Defense Department and a number of intelligence agencies.

Levine notes that the complete name of Maven is “Algorithmic Warfare Cross-functional Team: Project Maven” and its purpose is to improve object identification for use in drone warfare. He also wonders how so many Google employees could have been unaware of their company’s deep involvement in military contracting through a subsidiary called Google Federal.

He explains that Google Federal, based near the CIA in Reston, VA, originated in 2004 with Google’s acquisition of a startup called Keyhole. Keyhole was midwifed by the CIA’s venture capital operation, In-Q-Tel. Keyhole’s CEO, Rob Painter, had deep connections to military and intelligence agencies, as well as to the vendors that compete for intel contracts worth an estimated $42 billion annually; Painter now runs Google Federal.

While Levine allows that some Google employees might be unaware of the military and intel work of the company, it’s widely known in Silicon Valley that most tech giants are deeply involved in these kinds of government contracts.

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