Publication Economic / Social Policy - Digital Transformation - War / Peace - Digitalisierung und Demokratie Big Tech Goes to War

Uncovering the growing role of US and European technology firms in the military–industrial complex





Lucas Maaser, Stephanie Verlaan,


November 2022

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US Air Force Sergeant Johnny Rodriguez holds security on the flight line alongside the Ghost Q-UGV unmanned ground vehicle known as the robotic dog, during an Advanced Battle Management System exercise at Nellis Air Force Base on 1 September 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Photo: IMAGO/Tsgt. Cory D. Payne/Planetpixx

Imagine being ordered by your employer to build a product that will be used to wage war, even end the life of another. Imagine its purpose was only revealed to you after you contributed to its creation. Had you known, would you still have agreed to be involved? What would you do if you were asked not to speak about the situation with anyone outside the company? Would you, an ordinary civilian, still want to work for a company that helps facilitate war, the suffering of others, and death? This has been the situation hundreds of employees of Silicon Valley tech corporations have found themselves in.

Lucas Maaser is a programme officer at the NGO Corruption Tracker. His research focuses on corruption, postcolonial perspectives on foreign policy, and the military-industrial complex.

Stephanie Verlaan most recently worked as a coordinator at the International Peace Bureau (IPB).

The US military is well-known as a world leader in developing advanced technologies. Indeed, it is widely credited with developing the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network or ARPANET, commonly thought of as the prototype of the internet. Other technologies initially developed for and by the US military, such as GPS or satellite imagery, have revolutionized how the average person goes about their daily life. However, over the last 30 years, the US military has been toppled from its pedestal of technological innovation by the private tech industry’s major players. In order to remain on an equal footing with its adversaries, the Pentagon had little alternative but to formulate a relationship with Silicon Valley of its own.

To maintain this relationship, government agencies have ample financial resources to provide. In 2020, the budget nations across the globe spent on their military activities reached 1,981 billion US dollars. With a 2.6 percent increase over the previous year, this development not only continues a long-standing trend of growing military budgets worldwide in the face of an ongoing pandemic, but also further solidifies the US’s position as the unequalled front-runner on the list, with an estimated 778 billion dollars and 39 percent of global military spending.

While public discourse around the public-private military innovation space appears to have matured and developed a noteworthy civic opposition in the US, resources investigating these ties seem to be largely undeveloped in Europe and Germany. With this study, we aim to start building these resources, highlighting strategies to both investigate opaque collaboration practices and building meaningful civic alliances to observe them. Our work addresses academics and activists, politicians and private individuals engaged in issues of the private-public military innovation nexus alike.

The steep escalation of violence in Ukraine resulting from Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, beginning on 24 February 2022 and which remained ongoing at the time of writing, catalysed a significant shift in traditionally hard-line government policies on military spending by the German government. Whether or not the planned upgrades to Germany’s military equipment will be extended to AI innovation in the form of an increased number of contracts with private tech companies remains to be seen with heavy weaponry such as tanks, jets, and ammunition having been primarily earmarked for allocations.

This study first embeds these recent developments within the wider history of technological innovation in the name of defence and security, to then illustrate how some of the most lucrative contracts between Big Tech firms and the US military contribute to the building of war machinery. To do so, it identifies case studies revolving around the so-called “Big Five” — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft — as major representatives of the consumer-driven technology innovation space and highlight the vast strata of other, seemingly more insignificant private actors involved in key contracts of recent years. In an analysis of the European and German market, it gives further reasons why we should care about US innovation systems in our region and how civilians have organized in the past to build an opposition and make their voices heard.

Download the Study