War of words escalates between tech firms’ employees and government

War of words escalates between tech firms’ employees and government

The employees of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Salesforce.com are increasingly at odds with their own bosses and with government policy, reports Chris Middleton.

The war of words between technology companies’ employees, on the one hand, and the US government and its agencies on the other, has intensified this week.

Former US deputy defense secretary Robert O Work said he is “alarmed” by Google’s decision to withdraw from the Pentagon’s Project Maven when the contract comes up for renewal next year.

Work claimed that, contrary to the negative views expressed by employees, academics, and civil liberties campaigners about Google’s involvement with the programme, the company’s exit created “an enormous moral hazard”.

“I fully agree that it might wind up with us taking a shot,” admitted Work, who created Project Maven to identify potential targets from drone footage, “but it could easily save lives.

“They said, look this data could potentially, down the line, at some point, cause harm to human life. I said yes, but it might save 500 Americans, or 500 allies, or 500 innocent civilians.”

Internal arguments

Google announced its intention to leave the AI programme earlier this month, after more than 4,000 employees signed a petition urging the company to withdraw from “the business of war”. Others resigned, citing fears over the potential weaponisation of AI.

In April, the Tech Workers Coalition launched a petition demanding that Google cancel the contract, saying “We can no longer ignore our industry’s and our technologies’ harmful biases, large-scale breaches of trust, and lack of ethical safeguards. “These are life and death stakes.”

In May, over 90 academics in the spheres of ethics, AI, and computer science published an open letter asking Google to back an international treaty prohibiting autonomous weapons systems, and cease work with the US military.

Earlier this month, Google bowed to that pressure and also published a new set of internal ethical guidelines covering future AI research and deployment.

However, Work suggested that Google’s stance is hypocritical, given its ongoing relationship with China. “Anything that’s going on in the AI centre in China is going to be the Chinese government and then will ultimately wind up in the hands of the Chinese military,” he said. “I didn’t see any Google employee saying, hmm, maybe we shouldn’t do that.”

In 2020, a compulsory surveillance and social ratings system will be introduced throughout China, monitoring every aspect of citizens’ lives via the use of data analytics, AI, and facial recognition.

The stated aim of the scheme is to punish non-conformity and reward the upholding of government values, so any Western company working with Chinese providers that are involved in the scheme would appear to be complicit with that policy.

Amazon vs the police

Amazon has also found itself in the firing line recently over its relationship with government agencies, particularly experimental deployments by police of its Rekognition facial recognition system. Many Amazon employees – and some senators – believe this will underscore ethnic bias and introduce unwarranted real-time surveillance of citizens.

The Orlando Police Department announced this week that it is ending its pilot programme in the wake of the controversy and pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), among others. 

However, the Orlando PD issued a statement saying, “Staff continue to discuss and evaluate whether to recommend continuation of the pilot at a further date.”

Rekognition remains in use in Washington County, Oregon.

Salesforce, Microsoft, and ICE

Meanwhile – as previously reported by Internet of Business – Microsoft has been slammed for its contractual relationship with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the government agency at the centre of the recent immigration scandal, which has seen children separated from parents at the Mexican border and sent to centres elsewhere in the US.

While the government has back-pedalled on that policy, controversy continues over many aspects of the ICE’s work, such as holding families indefinitely in detention centres.

Now Salesforce.com has become embroiled in the scandal too, with the enterprise cloud platform provider’s ethical stance on the public stage being called into question by its own employees.

According to a report on Buzzfeed this morning, 650 staff have written to CEO Marc Benioff – who, like Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Apple chief Tim Cook, has been an outspoken critic of the child-separation policy – to complain about the company’s contract with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Their letter said, “We believe that the moral and ethical emergency that CBP’s practices have created, and in which we have become complicit, compel us as an ohana [family] and you as our CEO, to take action by re-examining our contractual relationship with CBP and speaking out against its current practices.”

On 28 June, Salesforce announced that it was making a $1 million pledge to aid families who have been separated at the border – Ed.

Other companies have also found their reputations and business practices questioned over their association with the policy. For example, Accenture has endured multiple tweetstorms over its ties with ICE.

Internet of Business says

The politicisation of the technology industry – and of technology policy – would appear to be another sign of the increasingly polarised nature of global politics, evidenced also by the ongoing trade dispute between the US and China, which has caused some politicians to question US technology companies’ ties with Chinese partners – an almost McCarthy-like climate of suspicion and accusation.

The upside of all this is that the networked, collaborative nature of many of these technologies, and the ethical missions of some providers, are acting as a brake on the same companies’ desire to make money from questionable technological or political programmes.

In other words, employees are steering companies back towards their own stated values – which is arguably a sign of a healthy organisation, and that democratic processes can still thrive in a networked age.

Meanwhile, Pentagon cloud services contracts worth up to $10 billion are still up for grabs, with Amazon, Google, and Microsoft all thought to be in the running.

Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton is former editor of Internet of Business, and now a key contributor to the title. He specialises in robotics, AI, the IoT, blockchain, and technology strategy. He is also former editor of Computing, Computer Business Review, and Professional Outsourcing, among others, and is a contributing editor to Diginomica, Computing, and Hack & Craft News. Over the years, he has also written for Computer Weekly, The Guardian, The Times, PC World, I-CIO, V3, The Inquirer, and Blockchain News, among many others. He is an acknowledged robotics expert who has appeared on BBC TV and radio, ITN, and Talk Radio, and is probably the only tech journalist in the UK to own a number of humanoid robots, which he hires out to events, exhibitions, universities, and schools. Chris has also chaired conferences on robotics, AI, IoT investment, digital marketing, blockchain, and space technologies, and has spoken at numerous other events.