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Leaked emails from Google show Project Maven is much bigger than it says

Google could earn as much as $250 million a year from the partnership.


Tess Cagle


Posted on Jun 1, 2018   Updated on May 21, 2021, 2:33 pm CDT

Leaked emails from Google, and obtained by the Intercept, show that the technology company’s project with the U.S. military—Project Maven—was much bigger than it promised its employees.

Thousands of employees signed a petition in April, calling for an end to Google’s research program that helps the Department of Defense (DoD) better integrate machine learning and big data, and helps drone operators recognize images captured on the battlefield.

Google tried to calm its employees. Diane Greene, the chief executive of Google’s cloud business unit, spoke at a company town hall meeting following the revelations and said the contract was just for $9 million, according to the New York Times.

But the emails obtained by Intercept date back to September and show that Google expected Project Maven to haul in a $15 million in revenue and eventually earn Google $250 million per year. One month after news of the contract broke, the Pentagon allocated an additional $100 million to Project Maven. The email chain included Scott Frohman and Aileen Black, two members of Google’s defense sales team; Dr. Fei-Fei Li, the head scientist at Google Cloud; and members of the communications team.

While Jane Hynes, a spokesperson for Google Cloud, told the Intercept that the company stands by the statement given to the New York Times this week that “the new artificial intelligence principles under development precluded the use of A.I. in weaponry” she declined to comment on these emails.

In addition to the truth about how much money Google will make helping the DoD on the battlefield, the emails also revealed more troubling details about the project, as well as Google’s concern that the media would cover the news about the deal negatively.

Google isn’t the only tech company with an interest in helping the military, it appears. Amazon was in the running to obtain this project, according to the emails, and Amazon Web Services—the cloud computing arm of Amazon—“has some work loads” related to Project Maven.

The folks in the email chain were nervous about public perception of the project, as well. (Apparently, rightfully so.)

“This is red meat to the media to find all ways to damage Google,” Fei-Fei wrote. “You probably heard Elon Musk and his comment about AI causing WW3.”

Black cautioned her colleagues that even if they tried to keep the project under wraps, it would eventually be obtained by the press through the Freedom of Information Act. She said the company should release the news on their own terms—but it was never revealed to the public until the news was broken by Gizmodo.

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*First Published: Jun 1, 2018, 9:11 am CDT