Have you ever heard of Palantir Technologies? Probably not. This startup that specializes in big data was cofounded more than 10 years ago by a Silicon Valley star, Peter Thiel, who is also an originator of PayPal and was one of Facebook’s first investors. Even better: According to The Wall Street Journal, Palantir is currently worth $15 billion, which makes it one of the most valuable, sought-after start-ups, behind smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi and the Uber platform.
Despite all of this, Palantir almost never speaks out, far-removed from the excessive habits of the Californian sprouts. The reason for this discretion: Its algorithms are used by the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation or the CIA to analyze enormous quantities of data, researching the connections between them, in the fight against terrorism, for example; specifically, they apparently helped track down Osama bin Laden. The CIA is not just one of its clients, it is also one of its main financers, through a risk capital fund called In-Q-Tel.
The Garage and the Aircraft Carrier
Palantir is the last of a long list of high-tech companies that owe their existence and prosperity to Army and American intelligence subsidies. Far from the clichés of the long-haired rebels who invented the personal computer in the 1970s (Apple) or the nerdy students who founded the new internet royalty (Google, Facebook), Silicon Valley never would have taken off without military support which, at the end of World War II, flooded computer science pioneers with contracts and subsidies. As summed up by Pierre Bellanger, the author of La Souveraineté Numérique or Digital Sovereignty, “We marvel at startups started in garages, forgetting that those garages are in fact on aircraft carriers!”
Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs’ official biographer, revisits the birth of what he calls the “military-industrial-academic complex” at length in his latest essay, “The Innovators.” Isaacson associates its paternity to just one man, Vannevar Bush, who was an electric engineer, an entrepreneur — he cofounded the defense system giant Raytheon — and an MIT researcher all at once.
As his scientific adviser during the war, Vannevar Bush wrote a report titled “Science, the Endless Frontier” at President Roosevelt’s request in 1945. His conviction? “Fundamental research is absolutely essential to national security,” but also “to economic security,” because it improves competitiveness among companies. Researchers and private and military actors must therefore work together. This report would then inspire the creation of the National Science Foundation, which is in charge of allocating federal research loans. “The NSF and the Department of Defense [...] quickly became the first financers of research, spending just as much as the private industrials between the 1950s and the 1980s,” writes Isaacson.
From the Processor to Google Car
Seventy years after Vannevar Bush’s report, the list of innovations due to the “military-industrial-academic complex” looks like an American high-tech catalog. The silicon transistor, which gave Silicon Valley its name, was perfected by Fairchild Semiconductors, whose first client was the Army; its best engineers then left to create Intel. As far as the Internet, it never would have existed without the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon agency that was created in the middle of the Cold War to stimulate innovation in the face of the Soviet threat. Even the innocuous Siri, the voice assistance system of the Apple iPhone, was perfected thanks to SRI International — a spin-off of Stanford University — financing DARPA.
But today, Google is the one which gathers most of the people close to DARPA. Vinto Cerf, vice president and “Chief Internet Evangelist” of the group, works with the Pentagon to perfect the Internet’s basic protocol TCP/IP. Google Car came from the DARPA Grand Challenge self-driving car contest and the robot startup Boston Dynamics, bought out by Google in 2013, was financed by the agency for a long time. The Mountain View group even hired the previous director Regina Dugan to drive the team in charge of advanced team.
The Issue of Sovereignty
Of course the U.S. is not the only country where military and industrials have gotten used to working together on serious technologies. But what is particular about America is the digital aspect, particularly exchange platforms and data storage. The Snowden case, in June 2013, was revealing: If the secret service can massively access foreign countries’ information, it’s because the latter were hosted on American company servers and that the Department of Defense, on which the NSA depends, became the master in using these technologies.
Since then, numerous voices in France and Europe underline the urgency in finding digital sovereignty again. However, due to global companies on Internet platforms — search engines, social networks, operating systems, cloud computing ... — the chances of regaining ground that’s been lost since 1945 seem quite slim today.