American police would have become one of the biggest customers of Silicon Valley companies that develop surveillance tools. Reports indicate that US law enforcement agencies are increasingly implementing spying technologies such as spy drones. New research from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law estimates that about a quarter of police departments use them today. The technology companies providing these surveillance devices are allegedly funded by world-renowned venture capital firms. Experts are sounding the alarm about increased government surveillance.
State sales are gaining traction among Silicon Valley technology companies and startups. They sell more intelligence, surveillance and espionage equipment to the army and authorities. A situation that, according to analysts and human rights groups, reinforces the control of the American states and federal government over the populations. This equipment includes AI-equipped surveillance drones, autonomous patrol robots, facial recognition programs, etc. In short, the US army and police have become essential customers of Silicon Valley.
Analysts say it may seem strange that Silicon Valley is helping U.S. authorities spy on troublemakers. Supporting state surveillance does not sit well with the libertarian values espoused by many American technology luminaries who grew up in the early days of the Internet. Although Silicon Valley began supplying chips to the US military industry in the 1950s, its relationship with the state deteriorated as its focus shifted from guided missiles to e-commerce and iPhones. But things seem to have taken a different turn.
For example, a New York Police Department vendor includes Skydio, a Silicon Valley company that uses AI to make drones easy to fly and allow officers to control them with very little training. Skydio is backed by Andreessen Horowitz, a venture capital giant, and Accel, one of its peers. The New York Police Department is also buying Brinc, a maker of drones equipped with night vision cameras that can see through window glass. Brinc’s investors include Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, the startup behind ChatGPT, and Index Ventures, a large venture capital firm.
Analysts try to explain this new trend by the fact that the technology industry is looking for new frontiers of growth. In fact, companies have faced numerous macroeconomic challenges in recent years, a situation greatly exacerbated by the latest health crisis. Governments are the last survivors of the software revolution, explained Katherine Boyle, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, in a post published last year. At Andreessen Horowitz, Boyle is responsible for investing in companies that advance American dynamism, including national security.
Earlier this year, Andreessen Horowitz launched a fund called “American Dynamism” with the aim of investing in government-related industries. However, the resurgence of state sales is not just about startups; Big Tech is also competing for lucrative federal government contracts. In late 2022, the Pentagon signed a $9 billion contract to provide cloud services from Alphabet, Amazon, Oracle and Microsoft. According to a report by The Economist, in 2022, 11% of the value of federal contracts awarded to companies were for software and technology, up from 8% a decade ago.
The report highlights that surveillance is a modernizing government activity. Traditional vendors like Axon Enterprise and Motorola Solutions are joining startups offering more sophisticated technologies. The first of these is the drone. This sector is dominated by DJI, a Chinese manufacturer that last year supplied almost three-quarters of all drones sold in the United States. But that could change as restrictions have been implemented to limit imports of certain Chinese equipment into the United States due to national security concerns.
All of this represents an advantage for companies like Skydio and Brinc. Other types of aerial spying devices are also being developed. Startup Skydweller is developing an autonomous, solar-powered aircraft. If it works, you won’t need to land to recharge. According to the company, this would allow “persistent surveillance”. Furthermore, satellites constitute a second expanding technology. Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX and its imitators, including Blue Origin and OneWeb, have helped reduce the price of sending objects to space to about a tenth of what it was twenty years ago.
Low Earth orbit was thus covered with satellites, of which, according to the report, approximately one-eighth are used to observe the planet. Data firm PitchBook estimates that there are now around 200 companies that sell satellite imagery. BlackSky, one of the companies that sells satellite imagery, claims it can take an image of a point on Earth every hour. The report says satellite imagery has come a long way in the past decade, since Oregon police used Google Earth imagery to discover an illegal marijuana grow in a resident’s backyard.
Additionally, technology companies are also selling tools to help law enforcement agencies better leverage the wealth of images and information they now have at their fingertips. Ambient.ai, another startup backed by Andreessen Horowitz, has developed technology that automatically monitors cameras for suspicious activity. Palantir, a data mining company that has injected itself into the US military-industrial complex, sells its tools to departments like the Los Angeles Police Department. Finally, facial recognition software would now be more widely used in the United States.
About a tenth of American police forces would have access to this technology. A report released in September by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that six federal law enforcement agencies, including the FBI and the Secret Service, jointly conducted an average of 69 facial recognition searches per day. Among the top vendors cited was Clearview AI, a company backed by PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel. Analysts say surveillance and espionage capabilities could soon be improved by generative AI.
Will Marshall, head of Planet Labs, a company specializing in satellites, explains that “the analysis of satellite images using this technology will allow us to search for objects on Earth, just as Google allows us to search for information about Earth”. This should allow companies to make even more profits at the expense of Americans’ privacy. Fusus, a startup that sells real-time crime monitoring software, says its sales to US law enforcement agencies – there are reportedly more than 18,000 police departments in the United States – increased by more than 300% last year .
In 2017, startup Flock Safety launched a license plate reader that is now used in at least 47 US states. According to Paul Kwan of General Catalyst, another venture capital firm, relationships with government buyers, once established, tend to be long-lasting. This is despite criticism and calls to stop providing authorities and governments with advanced surveillance technologies. These appeals resonated with certain companies. Thus, in 2020, Amazon, Microsoft and IBM stopped providing facial recognition services to law enforcement.
The companies cited privacy concerns. However, analysts believe that the sale of surveillance technologies is profitable and is therefore likely to persist and even increase in the future. This trend should be observed in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world. For example, in France, the government wants to test AI-equipped surveillance cameras on a large scale during the 2024 Paris Olympic Games to detect suspicious behavior in real time. However, the proposal sparked an outcry, with critics fearing the cameras would remain after the 2024 Olympics.
Swedish company SmartEye sells eye-tracking technology to monitor riders’ moods. SmartEye also sells its products to advertising agencies. Hedge funds use satellite images to count cars in retailers’ parking lots, hoping to gauge their profits before market information is released. The trend towards increased surveillance, whether by Big Brother or large companies, shows no signs of reversing, says the report.
And you ?
What is your opinion on the matter?
What do you think of the links between Silicon Valley and the police and the American government?
Why do you think more and more companies and startups are selling surveillance technology?
Is the use of surveillance and espionage technologies justified? If so, under what conditions?
What are the concerns about using these technologies?