The CIA's Relationship With Silicon Valley Explained

When you open the most used website run by their least-loved company, you might be thinking about how much technology has taken over our lives. What most don't think is that the U.S. government actually had a hand in that. Also, for the record, the website is Amazon.

Technology companies like Amazon, Google, and IBM, have ties to Silicon Valley. This formerly sleepy town in southern California's Bay Area is home to so many of the biggest names in technology. And with the kinds of innovations they make, any government would love to work with them.

But more than working with companies, the government is one of Silicon Valley's biggest customers.

According to The Atlantic, the CIA contracted Amazon's cloud unit to create a computing system for the entire intelligence community in 2014. The system will make it easier for intelligence offices to share information and fill in gaps in case there's some important national security event.

It was a long time coming. The CIA first came up with the plan in 2011. Officials wanted to modernize data sharing. However, it wasn't easy. The contract went through a procurement process filled with some controversy.

In 2012, Microsoft and AT&T first said the contract was too narrow. After another bidding process, the CIA awarded $600 million to Amazon Web Services (AWS) to build its cloud. IBM sued, and the CIA restarted the bidding, which AWS won again.

There's money involved

The intelligence community is no stranger to Silicon Valley. Sure, it may have only begun buying cloud services from it since 2014, but it has deep roots in the technology world.

Quartz writes the CIA and the National Security Agency (NSA) began reaching out to research scientists developing supercomputers in the 1990s with research grants. The government and technologists have worked together before. Work on the internet first started as a project for the CIA and other intelligence offices. One of the grants, called the Massive Digital Data Systems, was given to a pair of Stanford graduate students exploring web searches and tracking, Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Other grants helped fund research into fiber optics and radar.

Yet, the CIA was not satisfied with funding university research that eventually became some of the biggest companies in the world; they wanted a more direct link to them. The Wall Street Journal reports the venture capital fund In-Q-Tel, which continues to invest today, is backed by the CIA.

In-Q-Tell claims it is wholly independent of the CIA, but the Wall Street Journal notes it still makes many of its investing decisions with the agency. As a company funded by public money, In-Q-Tel is a nonprofit, unlike other venture capital firms. Just like its funder, the company tends to be very secretive. It never announces how much it invests, and rarely reveals which start-ups it invested in.

So it's not a surprise that the CIA turned to Silicon Valley for its cloud project.

The CIA and Amazon connection

Part of the cloud project with AWS is to help the CIA automate many of its processes. The Atlantic writes the CIA wants to be more efficient, so it can save some money. This is possibly because spying is expensive, so the agency wants to make it easier to analyze data and crunch numbers and stop other spies from attacking the U.S. Hopefully, the cloud makes it easier for the intelligence community to find moles before they wreak havoc.

The cloud built by AWS for the CIA is a public cloud, but the agency believes it's secure. And it better be, since the information stored and manipulated in it happens to be the greatest secrets of the United States government. Imagine if that came out into the world.

This is not the end of the CIA's involvement with Silicon Valley (though, once again, it does have an active venture fund). The agency announced in 2020 that it is opened up more contracts for cloud computing projects to other companies, explains Bloomberg. Documents showed the CIA wants to build a system that interacts with many clouds from other providers and makes sharing information with other agencies running on those systems easier.

Silicon Valley continues to create interesting technological innovations, and you can bet that the CIA will want to have a piece of that.