In early September New Yorkers may have noticed an unwelcome guest hovering round their parties. In the lead-up to Labour Day weekend the New York Police Department (NYPD) said that it would use drones to look into complaints about festivities, including back-yard gatherings. Snooping police drones are an increasingly common sight in America. According to a recent survey by researchers at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, about a quarter of police forces now use them.
Even more surprising is where the technology is coming from. Among the NYPD’s suppliers is Skydio, a Silicon Valley firm that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to make drones easy to fly, allowing officers to control them with little training. Skydio is backed by Andreessen Horowitz, a venture-capital (VC) giant, and Accel, one of its peers. The NYPD is also buying from BRINC, another startup, which makes flying machines equipped with night-vision cameras that can smash through windows. Sam Altman of OpenAI, the startup behind ChatGPT, is among BRINC’s investors.
It may seem odd that Silicon Valley is helping American law enforcement snoop on troublemakers. Supporting state surveillance sits awkwardly with the libertarian values espoused by many American tech luminaries who came of age in the early days of the internet. Although Silicon Valley got its start supplying chips for America’s defence industry in the 1950s, its relations with the state withered as its attention shifted from self-guided missiles to e-commerce and iPhones.
Now, as the tech industry seeks out new frontiers of growth, selling to the state is coming back into vogue. Government is “the last remaining holdout from the software revolution”, wrote Katherine Boyle of Andreessen Horowitz in a blog post last year. Earlier this year the firm launched an “American Dynamism” fund to invest in government-related industries. Slowly but surely, the state is dragging itself into the digital age. At the end of 2022 the Pentagon awarded a $9bn cloud-computing contract to Alphabet, Amazon, Oracle and Microsoft, four tech giants. Last year 11% of the value of federal contracts awarded to businesses was for software and technology, up from 8% a decade ago, according to The Economist’s calculations.
Surveillance is one government activity that is being