When we talk about defense contractors, we’re usually talking about companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrop Grumman. These are companies that have been around for a very long time, and they have done everything from put men on the moon to develop plans to put men on Mars. But there are a number of companies whose images aren’t necessarily painted on the sides of rockets or printed in the technical manuals of Army trucks. These companies are known only for their consumer products, but their contribution to the defense industry is or will soon be explosive in terms of impact. In this series, ClearanceJobs will examine some of these companies and explore how they came to places of prominence in the national security industry.
Perhaps the least expected developer of tomorrow’s weapons of war is a company known for cute “doodles” and web searches: Google. The search giant’s close relationship with the National Security Agency is well-established and possibly the worst-kept secret in the intelligence community—and that was before anyone had ever heard of Edward Snowden. (When you’re close enough to Gen. Keith Alexander, then-director of the NSA, to open an email to him “hi keith,” any protestation of opposition to U.S. surveillance policy rings hollow.) Likewise, the company has actively pursued surveillance contracts down to the metropolitan level. (As revealed by public records requests in Oakland, California, Google sought to power the city’s intelligence office—the not-subtly-named “Domain Awareness Center.”)
“COME WITH ME IF YOU WANT TO LIVE.”
Regardless of one’s opinion of domestic spying, you can’t blame Google for entering a lucrative market. But nobody likes a hypocrite, and here Google sets itself up as a prime target. Consider that late last year, Google purchased defense contractor Boston Dynamics in what was the search giant’s most visible move onto the physical battlefield. Boston Dynamics is a robotics laboratory that produces some of the most extraordinary robots in the world. When the Terminators come, they’re going to look a lot like this, this, or this (which means we won’t even be able to outrun them). The robots have a number of battlefield uses, with the most impressive (and seemingly near-term) of the lot being as semi-autonomous “pack mules” capable of toting hundreds of pounds of gear for 20-mile foot patrols. They were built with funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), with which Boston Dynamics has a close, standing relationship. In turn, the company has a contract with DARPA to provide an entrant and technical support to the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a prize competition seeking to spur innovation in robotics.
And yet in what is perhaps the most mind-bogglingly hypocritical move in recorded human history, upon purchasing Boston Dynamics, Google renounced DARPA’s money and agreed only under protest to fulfill the company’s contractual obligation to the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Google literally owes every single penny of its $395 billion market value to DARPA, which built the Internet in the first place. But beyond even that, DARPA also partially funded a Stanford computer science research program in the 1990s whose objective was web indexing and search. The Stanford computer scientists? Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The web indexing and search company that the duo went on to found? You guessed it. By all rights, Google’s executives should already be camped out in Pomona, California (where the robotics finals will be held next year) so as to be the first to thank every employee of DARPA they can find.
While Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters is its most visible spot on the map, it also has an outpost on the east coast called Google Federal. The Washington D.C.-based office seems mostly to operate in the shadows, and the occasional coverage it receives suggests a much closer connection to the military-industrial-intelligence complex than its DARPA-spurning consumer side would have the public believe. Michael Bradshaw, director of Google Federal, told the Washington Post, “A lot of people didn’t even know Google Federal existed.” According to the newspaper, traditional government contractors are very eager to work with Google—and Google is very eager to work with them. Google has partnered with such companies as Lockheed Martin, Unisys, Computer Sciences Corporation, and Blackbird Technologies. Google also has quite a number of contracts with Defense and the intelligence community, providing software and services to everyone from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to the Department of the Army.
It would seem this is only the beginning of Google’s move into the national security arena. A look at Google’s broader portfolio suggests limitless ambition. It is a company that now owns a satellite firm, advanced mapping and geospatial technologies, self-driving cars, an unrivaled robotics portfolio, and a peerless collection of global user metadata. Companies like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrup Grumman helped us conquer the moon, and one day Mars. It seems Google is intent on conquering the Earth.