eople walk by Google offices, Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, in New York.

eople walk by Google offices, Monday, Dec. 4, 2017, in New York. AP / Mark Lennihan

Google is Pursuing the Pentagon’s Giant Cloud Contract Quietly, Fearing An Employee Revolt

A fierce internal debate may undermine the company’s bid for the JEDI program.

Last August, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis made a journey to the West Coast and met with Google founder Sergey Brin and CEO Sundar Pichai. Over a half day of meetings, Google leaders described the company’s multi-year transition to cloud computing and how it was helping them develop into a powerhouse for research and development into artificial intelligence. Brin in particular was eager to showcase how much Google was learning every day about AI and cloud implementation, according to one current and one former senior Defense Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

It wasn’t an overt sales pitch, exactly, say the officials. But the effect of the trip, during which Mattis also met representatives from Amazon, was transformative. He went west with deep reservations about a department-wide move to the cloud and returned to Washington, D.C., convinced that the U.S. military had to move much of its data to a commercial cloud provider — not just to manage files, email, and paperwork but to push mission-critical information to front-line operators.

In September, Defense Department officials announced that they would be moving onto the cloud in a big way. The Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, program has since morphed into a single contract potentially worth $10 billion over a decade, to be awarded by year’s end.  

The competition is still in its early phases, with a request for proposals expected as early as this week. But the senior defense official said that the race is shaping up as a three-way fight between Amazon, Microsoft, and Google — with Oracle a rather distant fourth. While Amazon and Microsoft have participated in public events related to the contract, such as an industry event on March 7, and have reached out to media, Google has kept its own interest in the contract out of the press. Company leaders have even hidden the pursuit from its own workers, according to Google employees Defense One reached.

Google did not respond to repeated requests for comment about its interest in the JEDI contract. A spokesperson for Google’s cloud business did point out that they had recently achieved FedRAMP certification, earning the right to compete for government work.

Pentagon officials expect the losers of the JEDI bidding to protest, and so are limiting public conversations about it in an effort to tamp down perceptions of favoritism. Multiple officials said that Mattis doesn’t care who wins. He has handed management of the process to Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. The officials described Mattis’s priorities for the JEDI cloud as these: firstly, it must be both secure and resilient; second, it has to deliver information to warfighters engaged in combat (what is sometimes called the “tactical edge”), and third, it can’t take forever to build.

Previous reports have suggested that Amazon is the strongest contender for the contract. Its cloud business is the largest by revenue, and it is the only cloud provider that has already won business with the intelligence community. According to Pentagon draft requirements released in March, the winning provider must be able to handle both secret and top-secret information, which Amazon can do. But the winner will have nine months to reach certification — and Amazon itself developed the capability after winning important contracts. So while it’s a tall barrier, it’s not insurmountable.  Also, the NSA has begun to rely more and more on their internally-built GovCloud, turning away from their Amazon-built cloud more and more.

The senior official cautioned against discounting the other top contenders. Microsoft has more established links with the Defense Department and is set up organizationally to be more responsive to DOD customer requests, which the senior official described as an attractive feature. And while officials have said that President Trump’s personal and public animus toward Amazon will not affect the award, it’s hard to imagine that it will work in the company’s favor.

Google’s Ethics “Baggage”

The head of Google Cloud, Diane Greene, has telegraphed an interest in winning more federal business and is rumored to be interested in buying Red Hat, an IT provider and Defense Department contractor that obtained numerous Defense Department security certifications.

What does Google bring to the fight that Amazon does not? The senior defense official described Google’s research into artificial intelligence as the company’s “key differentiator.” But the company’s proposed provision of AI expertise to the Pentagon has become an issue of hot internal debate.

In April, some 3,100 Google employees signed a letter urging the company to forgo work on a pioneering, if still small-scale, Air Force program. Called Maven, the program applies artificial intelligence and machine learning to the job of classifying objects in surveillance footage. Google management responded to the petition with a statement, published in part on April 4 in the New York Times, saying that they had provided nothing more than “open-source object recognition software available to any Google Cloud customer” to help the Air Force lift the burden on its analysts. “The technology is used to flag images for human review and is intended to save lives and save people from having to do highly tedious work,” the statement said.

Air Force Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Steve Wilson echoed that at a New America event also in April, calling Maven “a Department effort to look at how we automate repetitive tasks. It’s not weaponizing [artificial intelligence]. It’s not using machines in a targeting function.”

But Maven is more than either Google or the Defense Department has admitted publicly, according to the senior defense official who called it a “pathfinder” project, a starting point for future collaboration between the Pentagon and Google.

On Wednesday, Greene hosted a Google town hall to discuss the Maven project, according to sources with direct knowledge of the meeting. The Google Cloud leader called Maven a “proof of concept” without elaborating on what it was a proof of concept for. She said that Google was drafting a set of ethical principles to guide the company’s use of its technology and products; she reportedly expressed regret that those principles were not in place before Google signed the Maven contract.

At the town hall, she said the principles, internal guidelines for the company, would have to be in place before Google commits to any further work on the Maven project or any similar work. She reiterated that Google was not going to build weapons for the Pentagon, but never defined “weapons” or outlined the parameters of what the principles would look like.

Google employees appear to have been largely unimpressed by Greene’s presentation. Several who spoke to Defense One after the town hall were surprised to learn that the company would consider pursuing the JEDI contract, and said that they believed many people at the company would have strong objections to the Google providing cloud services to support combat operations, even if that support was indirect, especially if it involved the company’s AI research.

While JEDI will be by far the military’s largest cloud contract yet, it isn’t the only one, and it won’t be the last. Whichever company comes in second or third will be well-positioned to scoop up secondary cloud contracts, the senior defense official said. A September report from data analytics company Govini found that Defense Department spending on cloud increased by 27.8 percent to $1.8 billion between fiscal year 2015 and 2016 across a wide variety of contracts that, the senior defense official said, the department has no plans to cancel. Even if Google doesn’t win JEDI, it’s still on the path to being a big Pentagon contractor.

But the official described the internal ambivalence within the company as “baggage” that made Google less attractive as a partner.

It's Not AI to Kill People...Directly

Whoever does win the JEDI cloud contract will be providing tools to help the military fulfill its vision of a highly data-integrated armed nervous system where every ship, soldier, jet, drone and officer is digitally interconnected. The Defense Department’s cloud needs are directly related to its ambitions for highly networked warfare across air, sea, land, space and cyberspace. That cloud provider will be helping the military hit targets and execute missions better, and much, much faster, even if the cloud is not formally involved in target selection or engagement, a job that the Pentagon maintains will continue to be done by human troops for the foreseeable future.

“When we look at the future, and discuss not only how to do we connect systems, connect computers at the tactical edge — most of things we are talking about are standalone computers — we have a real opportunity to ask, ‘How do we connect these,” Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said in March, responding to a question about his hopes for the military’s cloud. “How do I connect these at the speed of light so I can make decisions faster that allow us to produce multiple dilemmas for the adversary that they can’t keep up with?”

Goldfein went on to describe how the integration of highly resilient cloud computing architectures with artificial intelligence and embedded on every ship, drone, jet, and within the grasp of every soldier, would provide the U.S. military with “a significant asymmetric advantage” in future fights. A big part of that is having one big commercial cloud provider to connect it all, or at least improve standardization, he said.

“One of the things we’ve made some progress on is: What is the best industry standard? … We’ve done some experimental work where we have taken the best in industry and then said, ‘If we connect various sensors and pieces of computing technology to that baseline and then use a combination of artificial intelligence and automation...how could we speed decision-making to the point where we have humans doing only what humans need to do?’”

In many cases, that means killing people. And that’s not something every Google employee, user, and investor feels comfortable with.

At the April event, Vice Chief of Staff Wilson was asked whether Google’s internal debate had affected the Air Force, its plans, or discussions between the military and the tech giant. He responded without naming the company: “We’re going to need industry to help us move forward. Our industry partners have been very helpful. Bottom line is: We need to do a better job at communication.”

Heather Kuldell and Frank Konkel contributed to this report.