Google pursues Pentagon cloud contract in spite of past employee concerns

In 2018, the company pulled out of another military contract over worker protests.

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Three years after its involvement with the military’s controversial Project Maven program led to employee strife within its walls, Google reportedly hopes to once again work with the Pentagon. According to The New York Times, the company is “aggressively” pursuing the Defense Department’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability cloud contract. A Google spokesperson confirmed to Engadget it was pursuing a bid.

Announced at the start of July, the program is a replacement for the military’s cancelled $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure initiative. With JEDI, the Pentagon had planned to modernize its IT infrastructure with help from Microsoft. However, the contract stalled after Amazon challenged it in court, in part over allegations former President Donald Trump had interfered with the evaluation process.

Unlike JEDI, JWCC is a multi-vendor contract that will see the military eventually working with more than one company. When the Pentagon announced the program, it said it would collect proposals from both Amazon and Microsoft. At the time, it said they were the two vendors best suited to meet its needs, but noted it was also open to working with other companies. Google did not bid on JEDI in part because of what happened with Project Maven.

The program, with help from Google, saw the military use machine learning to interpret drone footage. When the company confirmed its involvement in Maven, it said its technology was involved in “non-offensive uses only,” and that it was flagging material for “human review.” Outrage within the company quickly grew. Approximately 4,000 employees petitioned Google CEO Sundar Pichai to pull the company out of the project. Some workers even left Google over the episode. In the aftermath of the protest, the company did not renew its contract with the Pentagon.

It also established a set of ethical principles to guide its military AI work. Those guidelines prohibit the company from using machine learning in relation to “weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose or implementation is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people.” When Google established the principles, Pichai reportedly told workers his hope was they would stand “the test of time.”

In spite of those guidelines, Google is pursuing the JWCC contract. According to The Times, the company has “raced” to prepare a proposal to present to Pentagon officials on why it should be involved in the project. The contract is reportedly a priority for the company, with the outlet reporting that Google pulled employees off other assignments to work on its bid.

“We strongly believe a multi-cloud strategy offers the department the best solution today and in the future,” a spokesperson for the company said. “We are firmly committed to serving our public sector customers, including the DoD, Department of Energy, NIH, and many other government agencies, and we will evaluate any future bid opportunities accordingly."

Google will reportedly find out if it qualifies to make a bid sometime in the next few weeks. The question then becomes if the contract is compatible with its AI guidelines, and what effect that will have on its employees. Those principles leave room for it to work with the military on projects that involve things like cybersecurity, and it already has contracts in place to help the Defense Department with pilot training and Navy ship maintenance.

If it obtains the contract, Engadget has learned the company anticipates it could help the Defense Department with cloud services like hosting, storage and networking, in addition to artificial intelligence and machine learning. Specifically, the Pentagon could use Google's data analytics capabilities to predict and monitor forces like climate change and the current pandemic. Any custom AI work the job involves will need to be vetted through the company's guidelines. It also expects it could work with the Pentagon on more prosaic issues like security, employee travel and finance.