The federal government is just like you and me. Except it can legally kill people, and, instead of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on gadgets, it spends millions. Think you buy a lot of Apple gear? Not even close.
Given what dire financial straits the government is in, we thought it would be interesting to see how many of our tax dollars are going to gadgets. We also wanted to see what kind of electronics the government is buying—in case there was a company making a consumer-grade teleportation machine that we might have overlooked. We searched through a decade's worth of government purchase orders, from June 2001 through today. It turns out, the government has some serious gadget lust, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on garden variety consumer electronics.
But don't go gettin all outraged. Some of these purchases are easily explained. For example, the Air Force spent $663,000 on Playstation 3s. Sounds outrageous if you're picturing a bunch of airmen sitting around getting high and playing Ace Combat. But in fact it's for a supercomputer built from an array of PS3 consoles.
The Veteran's Administration tends to buy a lot of gaming consoles, too, but I'm not going to begrudge wounded vets a little XBox time. Same goes for air bases in Bagram. And of course there are other caveats as well. The longer a device has been around—like a Blackberry or an iPod—the longer purchasing history it will have.
Moreover, not all of the money goes to straight up device purchases. Sometimes books and documents are listed as Kindle purchases, or iPhone and Blackberry expenses are related to app development. Also included in these gadget expenses are the cost of using them, which can be hefty. Like the FBI's most recent Verizon bill for its Blackberry voice and data service, for example. It was $10 million. And you thought you got reamed when you took your iPhone to Paris.
In other cases, the purchases are a little more mysterious For example, the Department of Agriculture's Rural Housing Service spent $5,000 on B&N Nooks and $15,000 on Apple iPods last year. Why? And WTF is with the $12,000 the Army spent on 30GB Zunes in 2007? What are they using those for, body armor? God knows they aren't good for much else.
The Army has also spent $1.1 million on iPads to date, and you have to wonder if that's really necessary. Sorry to go all line-item on you, Army, but I have a hard time justifying the $1200 I've spent on mine, and I work for fucking Gizmodo. And while it's not a gadget, strictly speaking, we'd really love to know what's up with the $50,000 the State Department spent on a Porsche in Budapest in 2009. (And why it was funded by the Department of Justice? And can I get a job driving Porsches for the Department of Justice?)
I've got emails in to the procurement officers responsible for some these purchases (when one was listed) to try to learn more, but as of yet have not heard anything back. Unsurprising! Don't worry. We're still digging.
In the meantime, here's a breakdown of what the federal government spends on some of its favorite gadgets, courtesy of the federal procurement database.