Intelligence agencies now have venture capital wings
In the wake of Snowden’s exposure of large-scale surveillance programmes, the onslaught of international security scandals has since cemented a deep distrust of deep state spooks. So it should hardly come as a surprise that some of the most high-tech startups are publicly (albeit somewhat discreetly) backed by intelligence agencies looking to bolster their snooping strokes.
Colloquially cited as the Company, the CIA is the most prolific investor of all. Under In-Q-Tel, its corporate venturing division, government analysts have snagged more than 500 companies since 1999. Its eye-watering portfolio bore mega-corporations the likes of Palantir, GitLab and Keyhole (later reborn as Google Earth post-acquisition).
Named after ‘Q’ – 007‘s omniscient gadget plug – In-Q-Tel is technically independent of US intelligence agencies. Rather, it annually signs binding contracts with the CIA. But for all intents and purposes, it is a non-profit government wing investing in “innovative technologies that protect and preserve [the US’] security.”
The fund therefore supports startups world-wide in the name of protecting Americans. Largely achieved through novel GPS tracking infrastructure bootstrapping immersive AI wearables (to mash a few buzzwords) on a grand “mission to reimagine data analytics to help build the future”.
A frustrating side-effect however, particularly for software companies, is hefty export restrictions. For instance, certain features of GitLab – a popular open-core software repository manager – is sporadically bannable in rival nations like China.
Modelled after In-Q-Tel’s success, the National Security Strategic Investment Fund (NSSIF) aims to accelerate the “development of the UK’s dual-use technology ecosystem.” In other words: GPS, cyber, chemical and biological tech that double as peaceful tools as much as they serve the military.
British spooks are a little more guarded around their investments though. For one, their website isn’t as fancy-pantsy as their US counterpart. More notably, most tech entrepreneurs aren’t aware of its existence – not unless they’re tapped by men in black. And you certainly won’t find their employees uploading work-life selfies! (Maybe a LinkedIn profile or two listing curious career stints at the Ministry of Defence.)
Nevertheless, various contributors and publicised “leaks” reveal that NSSIF recently took a partial stake in Quantum Motion. By prerecognising the vast potentials of “fault-tolerant” quantum computing – jointly developed at UCL and Oxford – intelligence agencies hope to tap into accelerated simulations, machine learning and scientific discoveries.
NSSIF’s £400 million bid in the renewed space race for OneWeb also made headlines in 2020. (Especially since the UK is no longer privy to the EU’s now-enviable Gallileo programme.) So their controversial 45% stake in the struggling startup’s low-Earth-orbit satellites offers a glimpe into intelligence agencies’ beta plans for backup GPS data. And possibly aid 5G roll outs on second thought.
Other pioneering businesses closely aligned with NSSIF include Hazy and Codility, which provide differential privacy and online skills testing platforms respectively.
Is it time to worry?
Intelligence agencies are undoubtedly customers as much as they are early-stage investors of these companies. Interestingly, trustees of these secretive funds can reap the profits from their invesments, unlike in other government wings. Concerning governance, the Wall Street Jounrnal found that “nearly half of In-Q-Tel’s employees and trustees (…) have ties to funded companies”.
But should we be so concerned about the growing reach of interventionist state control? After all, the very internet upon which these companies were founded started off as a US military project.
Yet, critics argue intelligence agencies are crossing an invisible line. So, are these investments by and large insidious trends – almost Big Brother-esque by authoritarian design? Leave a comment below!
[ Stay tuned for our upcoming dossier on sus conglomerates that may have received indirect funding from these intelligence agencies. Plus the string of timely suicides that inevitably followed… ]