Who were the rioters in the Capitol building on January 6? The FBI wants to know. As part of the effort to learn the identities of those who breached the Capitol, the agency is asking citizens for assistance.
But other methods are being used as well—those made possible by tech companies. Clearview AI, for example, reported law enforcement’s marked increase in the use of its facial recognition software by law enforcement the day after the riot. Along with smaller firms like Clearview, Big Tech companies produce powerful detection tools that may be useful to the government’s identification efforts. But before we excitedly suggest that Big Tech assist the government, we should consider the implications.
History is a powerful teacher. As we’ll see, it tells us to be leery of a cozy relationship between government and producers of new technology. The relationship between the government—especially the military—and the tech industry has a long history that dates back to at least the late 1800s.
But the lesson has not been learned, and the relationship between the military and technology industry is as strong as ever. In 2017 the Department of Defense (DOD) launched “Project Maven” with the intention of using artificial intelligence to engage in drone strikes. Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon were all brought in as partners. One recent investigation found that these companies maintained thousands of contracts with both the DOD and domestic law enforcement.
The benefit for tech companies is clear—government contracts mean big payouts. The tech industry isn’t shy about its ambitions. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has openly lobbied for military contracts. His company is far from alone.
This is concerning. Given the capabilities and ubiquity of technology, this military-big tech complex threatens the dynamism of competitive markets while expanding state power. This is so for two reasons.
First, these relationships redirect entrepreneurial activity away from consumers to the state. Instead of creating technologies that benefit society, companies instead focus on cultivating close ties with their political customers while devising more efficient means for governments to expand control over citizens. As a result, a small number of people in government, and not consumers, drive the evolution and direction of technological development.
Second, these relationships undermine competition and the adaptability of markets. With Uncle Sam backing their brand, companies can expand their stake in the market and in the process create barriers to competition. Unlike private markets, the market for military technology is driven by government budgets, and smaller companies get blocked out because, unlike the larger tech companies, they lack the resources to efficiently maneuver through bureaucratic political processes.
In addition to this, we should also be concerned about how government will likely use new technology. Some say that if “you have nothing to hide,” you shouldn’t be concerned about such technology being developed and deployed domestically. But history is full of examples of government using new technology to violate the rights of innocent individuals. One example is Stingray, a device that allows the data to be obtained from cell phones, such as location and other identifiers. This technology was originally developed for use abroad in the war on terror, but is now used in the United States by local law enforcement.
So, what can be done?
First, we must recognize that the “big” in Big Tech is to some extent a function of privileges granted by government contracts. Those concerned about the size and power of the tech industry must understand how such privileges help to reduce competition and create a cartel of large and favored firms.
Second, citizens must demand change. Given the money at stake, change will have to come from the bottom up.
This might seem like an unwinnable scenario, but it is not. Employees at Google and Microsoft have pushed for ethical guidelines about projects related to weapons, and some have resigned in protest. Over 400 employees at Amazon signed a letter to Jeff Bezos urging him not to sell facial recognition software to law enforcement. These local efforts are perhaps the best chance to limit the power of the military-Big Tech-complex. In order to be successful, however, such movements need the voices of more individuals in the tech industry and the general public.