Elon Musk and Big Tech’s Integration into the War Machine

The media flap which emerged when Walter Isaacson’s biography of Elon Musk was excerpted in the Washington Post on Sept. 7 provoked significant reactions over what had actually happened. The excerpt claimed that Musk had “deactivated” the Starlink satellite system coverage of the Black Sea, which prevented a Ukrainian attack on Russia’s Black Sea fleet in September 2022.

Musk later clarified on “X” (formerly Twitter) that Starlink had never been activated to cover Ukrainian military actions against the Black Sea fleet. He wrote:

“There was an emergency request from [Ukrainian] government authorities to activate Starlink all the way to Sevastopol. The obvious intent being to sink most of the Russian fleet at anchor…If I had agreed to their request,then SpaceX would be explicitly complicit in a major act of war and conflict escalation.”

Musk had stated earlier that had such an attack succeeded, “it would have been like a mini-Pearl Harbor,” and could have triggered a nuclear war.

Starlink is a system of SpaceX owned by Musk, which connects satellites in low-earth orbit to provide high-speed, cheap internet access to terminals on the ground. He provided at least 15,000 Starlink kits to Ukraine, to users who had lost internet access due to Russian cyber warfare. This capability aids Ukrainian troops to remain connected, as well as providing targeting to knock out incoming Russian drones and strike Russian targets at night, according to a report in the London Times.

The controversy sparked raises the as-yet-unresolved matter of the integration of private sector Big Tech firms into government military operations — especially firms steered by powerful billionaires. A report issued this month by the European Council on Foreign Relations analyses the “huge role” of private tech giants in the war in Ukraine.

“Big U.S. tech companies, and smaller more specialized firms, have provided high technology and cyber support and have allowed Ukraine to move its data to the cloud and digitise the battlefield”, it notes “Among the technologies used are drones, satellites and AI-enabled software.”

It quotes the President of Microsoft, Brad Smith, who said the war “involves an alliance of countries that are supporting Ukraine, and an alliance of tech companies.”

Among those identified are:

  • Google, which has provided its Project Shield software, creating a “cyber umbrella” to protect Ukraine’s websites from attack;
  • Microsoft, which estimates its support to Ukraine to be worth $400 million in 2022-23;
  • and Palantir, whose CEO Alex Karp says that data analysis from his company has improved “targeting functions”, from tanks to artillery, and is “responsible for most of the targeting in Ukraine”.

It is well-known that Big Tech firms are involved in hybrid warfare, as part of the post-9/11 “security state”, such as in data collection, and censorship on social media platforms. That they have become an integrated part of kinetic warfare raises additional questions, such as will they censor stories about covert operations they participate in on the battlefield? And can U.S.-based firms be held accountable by the U.S. government, when engaged in warfare on behalf of other governments?

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