Inside the chaos at Washington’s most connected military tech startup

Inside the chaos at Washington’s most connected military tech startup

Rebellion Defense set out to disrupt the way the Pentagon handles new technologies. Silicon Valley’s elite and Washington’s national security leaders lined up behind the startup. Three and a half years later, Rebellion is falling short.

Founded in 2019, Rebellion wants to create AI-powered software for the military, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement. The startup has claimed its tools could sort through heaps of sensitive data to help officials make decisions, and that it will ultimately build software capable of making battlefield decisions. Its backers are as big as they come, with high-profile investors like former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Even Obama’s personal IT guy joined. Rebellion has also won several million dollars of military contracts from the Pentagon, the start of what some observers think will be a gusher of government dollars. In 2022, the company raised $150 million in funding and was valued at a staggering $1.15 billion.

Now some industry experts say Rebellion has failed to meet its own mission, and some former employees allege the company has been stymied by problematic internal politics. Many startups face disarray, but the dangers are bigger here, far beyond the potential waste of taxpayer dollars on products that don’t actually exist. That’s because Rebellion is quickly developing military technologies, according to former staffers, without ethical guardrails on which governments products would be sold to or how they would be used. (Rebellion responded to this by sharing an “Ethical Principles” page from its website.) At worst, Rebellion’s ambition to automate decision-making could lead to algorithms with lethal power. Think Skynet in the Terminator films.

Recode spoke with seven former Rebellion employees who, speaking on the condition of anonymity, alleged that the company is mired in dysfunction, due to a toxic workplace. Two of them said that Rebellion’s products are still not market-ready. And the startup has been sloppy: Sources claimed that classified material, which is typically handled on secure platforms, has been shared in Rebellion’s unsecured Slack channels and Google documents, which poses risks to US national security. Spokesperson S.Y. Lee disputed this and said Rebellion “strictly complies with applicable government regulations.”

Rebellion is just one startup in a new generation of billion-dollar companies focused on selling to the military. If and when the technologies they’re building — including next-level facial recognition and autonomous decision-making — reach the battlefield, they could usher in an age of algorithmic warfare with lives at stake. In the coming years, AI may be capable of making decisions on whom to target abroad or eventually in the US.

“The stakes are different when you’re talking about creating a market for some plugin for Google Chrome or something like that, versus creating a market for weapons systems and surveillance technologies,” said Jathan Sadowski, a researcher at the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University. Rebellion’s software might endanger the soldiers using its products and, Sadowski emphasizes, “the lives of the people who are the targets of these technologies.”

The Silicon Valley mindset has led to breakthroughs in apps and smartphones. But is the move-fast-and-break-things culture what we want shaping the future of war?

Revolving-door power

Rebellion’s name evokes the good guys in Star Wars. In 2019, Rebellion opened up a slick office in downtown DC, around the corner from the Apple Store. In the common room was a mural of two hands gripping a lightsaber set against the Washington Monument. Employees one-upped each other with Star Wars kitsch at their desks. The deodorizing spray in the bathroom was labeled “Emperor Poo-Patine.”

Pop culture references aside, Rebellion aimed to capitalize on the revolving door between the government’s seat of power and Silicon Valley. The startup proclaimed to rebel against the entrenched government bureaucracy and, by extension, the military-industrial complex, in order to advance new technologies. Rebellion also wanted to bring Silicon Valley talent — and that fun, laid-back office culture — to Washington, hoping that big contracts would follow. The company needed connected people to make that happen.

Chris Lynch has been the company’s chief hype man. The onetime Microsoft employee co-founded the company with lawyer Nicole Camarillo, a former chief strategist for US Army Cyber Command. They met, and began secretly dating, while Lynch served as the first director of the Pentagon’s Defense Digital Service. Lynch was the force behind JEDI, a $10 billion Pentagon project to bring it onto a universal cloud. (The Defense Department ended up canceling JEDI amid lawsuits and controversy.)

In 2019, Lynch and Camarillo began pitching investors on AI products for the military, cybersecurity for ultra-classified data, and using AI to make satellite imagery easier to read. Rebellion’s pilot product, Iris, was a comprehensive battlespace awareness software that automates decision-making with AI, not unlike Skynet.

To create software as a service and sell it to the military, Rebellion relied on its network. Two Rebellion engineers landed seats on the Biden transition team in fall 2020. Then Rebellion adviser David Recordon, an accomplished Facebook alum who had also been Obama’s closest tech staffer, went to the White House as director for technology and special assistant to the president.

In addition to Eric Schmidt, who had led powerful national security advisory bodies in Washington, the company invited media mogul James Murdoch and Nick Sinai, deputy chief technology officer of the US during the Obama administration, to join its board. Rebellion also built out a fleet of former officials from both parties hyping the company in Washington. Pentagon budgeting virtuoso Bob Daigle became Rebellion’s chief operations officer. Jane Lee, who was Mitch McConnell’s adviser on appropriations, linked Rebellion to Congress.

The two years since Rebellion launched have also seen a steady flow of investment. By 2021, it had secured over $150 million at a $1.15 billion valuation. At the time, Axios reported that the funding “reflects a new mindset among venture capitalists, who long avoided defense startups.”

In September, after his stint at the White House, Recordon returned to Rebellion as chief technology officer. By that time, the company had grown to about 300 employees. But the ranks were full of unrest.

What Silicon Valley can do for the Pentagon

Lynch wanted to create a tech company suited for military contracting, in response to what he saw as the piqued tensions between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. Rebellion’s campaign to tie down military contracts went to the core of tech companies’ complex relationship with national security. But for all the hype around Rebellion’s cutting-edge technologies, former employees claim it’s unclear how big those contracts are or how well its products work.

Lynch specifically thought that Rebellion could offer a solution to the controversy surrounding Project Maven, a Defense Department program launched in 2017 to integrate AI into the military. One of Project Maven’s primary goals was to use the private sector’s state-of-the-art software to label and sort the thousands of hours of footage captured from US drones flying abroad. Through another contractor, the military hired Google in late 2017, but once workers in Mountain View learned about the project, thousands of them revolted, outraged that the work had been kept secret. Googlers also said the mixing of surveillance technology with artificial intelligence set a dangerous precedent. This spurred a broader ongoing debate about the ethics of Silicon Valley partnering with the military to create technologies that could kill. Google did not renew the contract.

Chris Lynch, then-director of the Pentagon’s Defense Digital Service, pictured in 2016.

Chris Lynch, then-director of the Pentagon’s Defense Digital Service, pictured in 2016.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Lynch, on the other hand, said the partnership between tech and the military was the future of both industries. Google’s problem, according to Lynch, was that the company didn’t go far enough in standing by the military’s patriotic mission when faced with internal criticism. Rebellion even described itself as “an unconstrained ‘Project Maven’” in an early pitch deck. And in early 2021, Rebellion did win a Maven subcontract to analyze captured enemy materials, like the cellphone data of enemy combatants, “to improve decision making for users within the military community.” Though the contract was only for $700,000, it seemed like exactly what Lynch had set out to do in the first place.

Things did not go as planned. Rebellion was so excited about the project that it pledged to use five to six times the resources that it would make from the contract, making a bet that its products would gain further momentum across government. But former employees allege the development team was frustrated with the terms of the subcontract and the amount of data Rebellion had access to. The startup ultimately decided to stop working on this aspect of Project Maven, according to two former employees. When asked about the incident, a Rebellion spokesperson told Recode it does not comment on specific contracts.

Rebellion has continued to work on a project related to Maven: a $650,000 obligation to colorize satellite imagery so that AI can more easily label it. But when the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Command hired Rebellion for a $600,000 contract to do something similar, the experiment failed, and the Pentagon discontinued the contract, according to a former senior Pentagon official familiar with the contract. Rebellion disputes this version of events but declined to comment specifically.

In 2022, Rebellion has secured only about $5.5 million in public US military contracts. That seems small given the startup’s $1 billion-plus valuation. Contracting experts say that, over time, a company would need to reach about $100 million of government work to realize such a valuation. By comparison, the rising software company Two Six Technologies has about $105 million in obligations for the year, while BigBear, an AI company with similar funding to Rebellion’s, has roughly $16 million. Rebellion told Recode that it has “paying customers across all of our products” and is “experiencing rapid growth,” but did not specify who those customers were or which products were generating that revenue.

Meanwhile, some have suspicions about how Rebellion advertises its products as AI solutions. Many of the products rely on data processing, which just isn’t nearly as sexy as machine learning. “They don’t really have any AI products,” one former Rebellion engineer alleged to Recode. “If I put it shortly, I would say, yeah, they’re doing AI, but none of it’s valuable,” said another former employee. A Rebellion spokesperson described its technology as “proven.”

The stakes of rush-developing military AI may seem to clash with what former employees describe as incompetence at the company. But even the seemingly underdeveloped products pose ethical concerns and could lead to unproven technologies in the hands of government officials with major potential for misuse.

One investor claims that Rebellion has been too focused on what are sometimes called “Made for Pentagon” products, chasing military contracts rather than creating innovative solutions. “‘Made for Pentagon’ companies don’t work, never were going to work, and are self-evidently bad ideas,” said Joseph Malchow, founding partner of the investment group Hanover.

Yet Rebellion’s inner circle has achieved the distinction of military tech influencers, glowingly profiled in the Atlantic, Fortune, and trade magazines. Lynch, usually in a hoodie, has taken the stage at South by Southwest and the premier Aspen Security Forum.

“Rebellion is like the Fyre Festival led by Jar Jar Binks,” said another former employee.

Rebellion’s Nova cybersecurity product, according to three former employees, does work. The Naval Postgraduate School, Special Operations Command, and the Air Force have purchased licenses for it. But two former employees emphasized that none of Rebellion’s products are being used operationally in the field by the US military. (Rebellion disputes this.)

The Pentagon seal in the Pentagon Briefing Room in Arlington, Virginia, on September 1, 2021.

The Pentagon seal in the Pentagon Briefing Room in Arlington, Virginia, on September 1, 2021.
Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Rebellion has also done work to modernize surveillance systems for US Special Operations Command, as part of a previously unpublished contract obtained by Recode. At $633,600, Rebellion’s portion of the sub-award is small compared to those of other participating contractors that work on internet surveillance, cellphone tracking, and satellite imaging. According to Jack Poulson of the watchdog Tech Inquiry, “Rebellion was one of many players, and it was far from the most interesting player on this contract.”

Along the way, Rebellion capitalized on the exaggerated threat of a US war with China and Russia to drum up appeal. A confidential product overview from 2021 obtained by Recode says that AI-enabled software is “the defining factor for deterring global conflict” and “the final frontier for a software revolution.” That rhetoric hasn’t convinced everyone.

“The technology that they’re building is not revolutionary or innovative,” said Sadowski upon reviewing the document. “What Rebellion has seemingly done is just put it in the language of military-speak.”

Many of its other products remain undeveloped, according to former employees, who told Recode that mismanagement and disorganization are to blame.

“It reminds me of an early-stage WeWork or a Theranos. They just keep raising money,” said one former employee.

Rebellion has not lived up to its stated values

Employees from Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix took a leap to join a military-focused company because they bought into Lynch’s appeal to “top-notch rogue agents” to do meaningful, patriotic work for American service members that was grounded in values (and competitive salaries).

Like Silicon Valley, military contractors have struggled with diversity. That’s why Rebellion made inclusion so central to its pitch to new employees. The company went out of its way to portray itself as progressive, in stark contrast to the culture at multibillion-dollar military tech startups founded by conservatives, like Peter Thiel’s Palantir and Palmer Luckey’s Anduril. On social media, Lynch declared that the company needed “extraordinary, diverse, and brilliant people to stand up and help define the future.” Blog posts conveyed the importance of Women’s History Month and Black History Month to Rebellion employees.

Despite his stated commitment to progressive values, Lynch often skipped diversity programming that Rebellion conducted on Juneteenth and Black History Month, per former employees. (According to Lee, “Rebellion has several forums to commemorate cultural and historical occasions with involvement and support from Chris Lynch, Rebellion’s leadership, and employees.”) Former employees pointed out that, apart from Camarillo, the board members appeared to be all white men. Meanwhile, Rebellion’s managers ignored women’s perspectives in meetings, according to several employees. Comments that verged on racism went unaddressed by management, two employees alleged to Recode. In recent layoffs, Rebellion dismissed a manager advertised as the leader of its DEI Council.

“Rebellion has a strong track record of investing company resources and time into supporting DEI initiatives since our founding,” and it “does not condone inappropriate behavior in the workplace,” said Lee, the Rebellion representative.

The lack of underrepresented employees in leadership roles at a military tech company can lead to products with inherent bias and inherent racism.

“You want that diversity and inclusiveness to make sure that different perspectives and experiences are embedded into the systems that you’re developing,” said Merve Hickok, an AI ethicist at the University of Michigan. Otherwise, she added, “You’re going to be not only replicating, repeating, but also deepening those inequalities and injustices.” (Rebellion said in a statement that 80 percent of product leaders come from underrepresented groups.)

One image that stuck with one former employee: a large poster board used to demonstrate the capability of Rebellion’s facial recognition software. On it were the faces of celebrities, Santa Claus, and Osama bin Laden, but the majority of the faces were people of color, especially Middle Easterners, displayed on the movable whiteboard in the office. It made employees from underrepresented groups feel particularly uncomfortable.

“I remember one time I looked at the poster, and I looked at the people around, and I looked more like the people on the poster,” the former employee explained. “Psychologically, I was feeling gross about what I was doing.”

A construction worker slides a window into place in the slick new downtown DC office building the year before Rebellion moved in.
Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Rebellion had posted a section on its website about the company’s values: transparency, empathy, diversity. But transparency did not include a statement on how the company’s products would be used, whether by non-democratic governments or by agencies with reputations for misuse, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which irked employees. Another statement on Rebellion’s website says, “We work with the military and intelligence agencies in the United States, the United Kingdom, and allied nations,” but offers no further details.

“One of the things that came up was, ‘Can we make pledges not to sell this stuff to law enforcement, or the Saudis, stuff like that,’ and they wouldn’t take any firm stance,” that same former employee said.

Other surprises threw employees. Co-founders Lynch and Camarillo had been engaged in a romantic relationship since before Rebellion launched. Former staff said they were demoralized to learn in an all-hands meeting that Camarillo, who served as the head of talent for two years, was dating the CEO.

Employees knew they couldn’t say anything about that, due to the cliquey nature of the workplace, but they did try to raise substantive issues to management, like how to improve products or basic procedures. Feedback to management was not welcome, they say.

“If you came in saying anything that would disrupt the echo chamber, despite the radical transparency and empathy, you’d get fired,” said a former employee. (Rebellion said that, in an anonymous survey, 70 percent of Rebellion employees said they “feel free to speak my mind without fear of negative consequences.”)

Data from LinkedIn shows that the median employee tenure at the company is about a year. This fall, many key personnel blasted off. Oliver Lewis changed his title on LinkedIn from UK chair to co-founder, a telling indication as Rebellion let go the majority of staff in its UK office. The engineer who had served on Biden’s transition left military contracting altogether. Chief operations officer Bob Daigle, the Pentagon budget wizard, no longer appears on Rebellion’s website.

Rebellion had set out to solve the Pentagon’s software problems and go even further by rebelling against the military-industrial base. The billion-dollar valuation obscured systemic shortcomings within the company. The influential board and staff insulated Rebellion from criticism. Rebellion has yet to deliver on the hype of its lofty goals of disruption.

As one former employee wrote on GlassDoor: “Dumpster fire.”

#chaos #Washingtons #connected #military #tech #startup

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