Coats critiques tech firms for inconsistent human rights stances

DNI Coats testifies in the Senate March 6 2018 

DNI Dan Coats testifies in the Senate March 6 2018

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said the U.S. government would welcome greater partnership with the private sector to augment cyber threat intelligence and improve national security, but he lamented what he perceives as a double standard among tech companies that refuse to help the U.S. government on ethical grounds while pursuing business opportunities in China.

At an Oct. 18 conference hosted by CyberScoop, Coats said that even as federal agencies and U.S. companies have a strong common interest in combatting cyberthreats, "there is a critique for some in the technology sector that the U.S. government is too intrusive."

"Even when we're seeking cooperation on national security matters, some companies are reluctant to partner with us because they believe it could hurt their brand by working too closely with the U.S. government," he said. "Nevertheless, many of these same companies turn right around and pursue access and production opportunities in China."

Coats said that companies that don't want to help the U.S. government build military and surveillance technologies should at least take into consideration how their business ventures abroad affect U.S. national security.

Coats did not elaborate on what he meant by cooperation, but his sentiments track with complaints made by policymakers and members of Congress in recent months that U.S. tech companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple have cited ethical concerns over partnering with the U.S. government on artificial intelligence or weakening encryption protocols to give law enforcement backdoor access to their products and software while creating custom or censored versions of their products for authoritarian countries abroad.

After Google announced it would not renew its contract on Project Maven, which uses AI to analyze aerial imagery to improve military targeting, five lawmakers wrote to CEO Sundar Pichai to ask why the company was still partnering with Chinese telecom firm Huawei, which U.S. officials have accused of facilitating espionage by the Chinese government.

Apple has led the fight against giving U.S. law enforcement greater access to its customers' encrypted communications, but it was criticized earlier this year for moving its iCloud encryption keys for Chinese users to a Chinese data center, potentially making it easier for the government to access sensitive communications if users back them up in the cloud.

However, the most fervent objections to working with the U.S. military and intelligence agencies have often come not from executives at the top but rather middle and lower level employees.

Tech behemoths Google, Microsoft and Amazon Web Services have all faced internal dissent from their U.S. workforces in the past year over partnerships their companies have with the Pentagon, from AI endeavors like Project Maven to pursuing the military's upcoming $10 billion cloud computing contract. Chief among employee concerns has been an aversion to their work being leveraged for military purposes.

"Many Microsoft employees don't believe that what we build should be used for waging war," an anonymous group of Microsoft employees wrote last week . "When we decided to work at Microsoft, we were doing so in the hopes of 'empowering every person on the planet to achieve more,' not with the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality."

Meanwhile, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has faced demands by some shareholders to stop selling facial recognition software and other surveillance tools to governments. They said that the technology would be used in the U.S. and other countries "to unfairly and disproportionately target and surveil people of color, immigrants, and civil society organizations."

About the Author

Derek B. Johnson is a senior staff writer at FCW, covering governmentwide IT policy, cybersecurity and a range of other federal technology issues.

Prior to joining FCW, Johnson was a freelance technology journalist. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, GoodCall News, Foreign Policy Journal, Washington Technology, Elevation DC, Connection Newspapers and The Maryland Gazette.

Johnson has a Bachelor's degree in journalism from Hofstra University and a Master's degree in public policy from George Mason University. He can be contacted at, or follow him on Twitter @derekdoestech.

Click here for previous articles by Johnson.


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