June 28, 2018 in News by RBN Staff



While we were still in the middle of the heat storm over Donald Trump’s decision to enact a zero tolerance border policy that resulted in children being separated from their parents at the border in far greater numbers than previous administrations, there was some interesting background coverage about the employees and customers of big tech companies like Microsoft receiving backlash for contracting with ICE. While much of that backlash came from outside those companies, there was plenty coming from within as well. Microsoft in particular saw throngs of employees outraged that the technology they had helped to develop was now being turned on the innocent children of migrants and asylum-seekers.

In an open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sent today, employees demanded that the company cancel its $19.4 million contract with ICE and instate a policy against working with clients who violate international human rights law. The text of the employee letter was first reported by the New York Times and confirmed by Gizmodo.

“We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” the letter, signed by Microsoft employees, states. “We request that Microsoft cancel its contracts with ICE, and with other clients who directly enable ICE. As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit. We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”

The 300 employees that signed the open letter represent a fraction of Microsoft’s total work force, of course, but you can bet that those willing to sign such a letter also represent a fraction of the staff that share the letter’s viewpoint. For its part, Microsoft condemned the Trump separation policy (how brave!), but the company has also refused thus far to acknowledge whether the ICE contract includes facial recognition software or AI. Such powerful tools would seem to be in the wheelhouse of what ICE would want as it carries out this ridiculous policy and Microsoft’s refusal to say such tools are not included in its contract with the agency sure seem to suggest that they are.

Of course, Microsoft is niether the only tech company going through this, nor the company that has had the largest in employee backlash. That distinction likely goes to Google, where employees not only voiced displeasure over the company’s contract to provide AI technology for the Pentagon’s drone warfare program, but where many people actually up and quit.

The resigning employees’ frustrations range from particular ethical concerns over the use of artificial intelligence in drone warfare to broader worries about Google’s political decisions—and the erosion of user trust that could result from these actions. Many of them have written accounts of their decisions to leave the company, and their stories have been gathered and shared in an internal document, the contents of which multiple sources have described to Gizmodo.

Google has long had a culture that encouraged employee feedback on the products it produces, in some cases such influence resulting in real policy shifts. The employees protesting Google’s drone contract say that has changed recently, with upper management far less transparent about what work the company is doing and far more deaf to the opinions of the employees that actually carry that work out. Combine it all with the growing distrust of Google in the public and it can appear that Google is trying to pantomime the caricature it is so often painted to be: faceless corporate greed-hounds without soul or morality.

And then there is Amazon, where the company’s AI contracts with the government and its granting of access to data-mining company Palantir also resulted in anger from within.

Amazon employees objected to the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policy at the U.S. border, which has resulted in thousands of children being separated from their parents.

“Along with much of the world we watched in horror recently as U.S. authorities tore children away from their parents,” the letter, distributed on a mailing list called ‘we-won’t-build-it,’ states. “In the face of this immoral U.S. policy, and the U.S.’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS.”

Amazon employees want the company out of the policing and immigration business, and have gone further by calling on the company to boot customers working with ICE off of its platform. Leadership at Amazon, as elsewhere, has been mostly silent, but it’s worth noting that Amazon shareholders actually kicked off the angry protests even before its employees did so. Whatever shakes out of this, this isn’t something Jeff Bezos is going to be able to ignore.

This is a good time to remind people that companies, including big tech companies, are not comprised of the steel and glass that makes up their offices, but of the people that run and work within them. It’s also worth acknowledging that the government has been after big tech firms for some time over the very tools that are likely in this contract. The lesson in this is that the government needs tech companies to carry out this disaster of a policy more than tech companies need the government for anything at all.

In other words, if these companies decided to put some moral courage on display en masse, it would have an effect. If they elect to do otherwise, their employees may force their hand. After all, the people signing these government contracts are certainly not the ones fulfilling them. That work is being done by the very employees revolting in protest. Given that there is pressure coming from not just within these companies to get out of the immigration business, but from outside as well, business interests may be lining up to give these companies an excuse to show a little backbone.