Tech Employees Revolting Over Government Contracts Reminds Us That Government Needs Tech More than Tech Needs Government

from the don't-be-complicit dept

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.


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  • icon
    tom (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 11:01am

    This is the same Microsoft that forces Windows 10 on millions of unsuspecting computer users and implements mandatory telemetry that violates the Right to Privacy and makes it clear through the mandatory update policies, forced advertising and forced applications that you really don't control that computer you thought you owned, violating the Right to Your Things. That Microsoft? Where are those employee's concern for the millions of Americans having their International Human Rights violated by Microsoft?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 27 Jun 2018 @ 11:22am

      Re:

      There aren't any forced advertising or forced applications; if you don't like what Microsoft does to your computer, there's always Linux.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Mason Wheeler (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 11:44am

        Re: Re:

        There aren't any forced advertising or forced applications

        If you're going to say things that run directly contrary to observed reality, please at least have the decency to follow up with a remark like "who are you gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?"

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          mcinsand, 27 Jun 2018 @ 12:11pm

          You missed the point

          AC's point was that there are alternatives... great alternatives... to Windows. Kubuntu was far easier to use for my 94 year old great aunt than Windows 10. PCBSD is even easier to use. You aren't forced to use Windows, you *choose* to accept Windows as your OS, at least at home. If you choose to accept Windows, then you choose all of the bloatware, spying, and ads that MS forces down its pipe.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            Mason Wheeler (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 12:30pm

            Re: You missed the point

            It all depends on what you mean by "use." If all you do is Web browsing, sure, that can be done on any platform. But go any further than that and Windows is still really your only realistic choice for any productivity or entertainment-related computing, because of the chicken-and-egg problem: people don't write business software or games for Linux because nobody uses it, and nobody uses Linux because there's no business software or games for it.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • identicon
              Thad, 27 Jun 2018 @ 12:42pm

              Re: Re: You missed the point

              people don't write business software or games for Linux because nobody uses it, and nobody uses Linux because there's no business software or games for it.

              There's less business software and there are fewer games for it. That's not the same thing as none.

              I switched my grandfather over to Mint/MATE last year; a spreadsheet program is all the software he needs to run his business. LibreOffice was a bit of a learning curve since he was used to Excel 2003, but honestly Excel 2007 or higher would have been an even bigger change from what he was used to.

              And I'm a Linux gamer, and while it's true that not every Windows game comes to Linux, I've got more than I can ever possibly find time to play. Linux support is the rule rather than the exception for indie games now, and while major studio releases aren't nearly as well-represented, I've certainly enjoyed games like Tomb Raider and Mad Max on Linux.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Mason Wheeler (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 1:10pm

                Re: Re: Re: You missed the point

                There's less business software and there are fewer games for it. That's not the same thing as none.

                Just out of curiosity, are you familiar with the mathematical concept of epsilon? It refers to a fraction small enough that anything less than it can be rounded down to 0 with no meaningful loss of precision in your calculations.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Anonymous Coward, 27 Jun 2018 @ 2:05pm

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: You missed the point

                  Just out of curiosity have you looked at the Debian Repos, or the Arch repos and AUR to see what software is actually available for Linux. (Debian and Arch/Manharo/Antergos have the richest repos, and all available through integrated software managers). That is just the software directly available, and even more is available via Sourceforge, Github, Gitlab etc. although installation takes a bit more effort, it usually come with instructions on how to build and install.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

                • identicon
                  Thad, 27 Jun 2018 @ 5:13pm

                  Re: Re: Re: Re: You missed the point

                  Oh, sorry. I thought you were just mistaken; I didn't realize you were being a dick.

                  reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

              • icon
                Atkray (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 5:55pm

                Re: Re: Re: You missed the point

                Noticeable by it's absence from your list of games ... an obscure little game called Fortnite

                Yes if you are persistent you may be able to get it to work but it is not supported and isn't a simple click and run proposition.

                reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 27 Jun 2018 @ 12:06pm

        Re: Re:

        It is forced enough that my family accidently installed the new operating system on a computer to old to handle it. It sorta worked but some of the hardware didn't have any drivers available in windows 10. Installing an operating system should never happen by accident. I use it extensively but there are things I don't like about it.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          Bamboo Harvester (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 12:56pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Which is why Microsoft no longer acknowledges that Windows is an Operating System.

          When it first came out, MS claimed it was an Operating System. Those of us running PC's back then said "No, it's a Menu System, DOS is the Operating System - it's right there in the acronym".

          WindowsNT was the first flavor that was an actual Operating System, then that collusion with IBM over OS/2 allowed MS to get some definite down to the bones OS software.

          NOW, MS claims "Windows is a Service, and requires frequent updates".

          As far as I can figure, they're doing so for some obscure legal reasons that allow "Services" more leeway (potential future monetary charges for "updates"?) than "Operating System".

          It may just be the Ownership issue of the software. You pay for an OS *once* and it's YOURS. Within various guidelines, much like those for a book - you can resell it, you can't modify it for resale, etc.

          With a Service, that's another legal matter - you do NOT own any part of a Service.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Thad, 27 Jun 2018 @ 11:38am

      Re:

      I'm opposed to all those things too (and they're part of why I'm a Linux user). But if you really think they're equivalent to what ICE is doing, then I think you're way off-base.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    hij (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 11:09am

    A mindless employee is a happy employee

    It kind of sucks to be in a business that requires the employees to think and solve problems. You never know where they may turn those m4d sk1llz.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Hero, 27 Jun 2018 @ 11:09am

    > 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.

    Please don't assume that "we can neither confirm nor deny" implies guilt. This is no different than Trump ranting about how people who plead the 5th Amendment are automatically guilty.

    Just because Microsoft didn't say it's not doing something doesn't mean they are doing something. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, we don't know.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    John Cressman, 27 Jun 2018 @ 11:24am

    Everyone...

    The government needs EVERYONE more than they need the government. Anyone who tells you differently... is working for the government.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Chip, 27 Jun 2018 @ 3:23pm

      Re: Everyone...

      I don't "need" the GOVERNMENT gor "Anything' EVER! All Regulations are "bad"! Like the "regulation" against LEAD "paint"!

      Every Nation eats the Paintchips it Deserves!

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Bamboo Harvester (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 11:52am

    Shades of IBM building the counting machines for the death camps.

    FWIW, any Microsoft (or other company) employees that don't like what their company makes are free to resign their jobs.

    I actually find this "revolt" rather amusing. Maybe General Electric employees should strike because of all the weapons they make for the military.

    Hey, just about EVERY major corporation makes Armaments of some sort for military AND LAW ENFORCEMENT use.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    surfer (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 12:24pm

    just say no..

    I know I dont post alot here, but I do read this board daily. I learned how to mask my identity online over 15 years ago. Believe me, I am not in Atlanta.

    I just wanted to express my voice on this particular topic as one of the many that will not offer my skill set to my government and to what extents that entails.

    I have been offered upward of $285,000/yr in salary and benefits to put my skillset to work for the US government and have turned it down. I will not define my skillset, simply accept that it is in IT and it is in a very rare niche and of incredible demand.

    I have been around since the inception of internet, and raise my voice to all skilled IT talent to rise to the moral high ground, and refuse to have your talent abused by the United States government.

    just say no..

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jun 2018 @ 12:39pm

    Where were the

    Microsoft, Google, Amazon employees when their beloved companies started piping tons of data directly to the NSA - voluntarily?

    It certainly appears that they don't mind helping the government treat the U.S. Constitution like toilet paper, but God help us if their companies merely host data and applications used by ICE.

    Both sides of their collective faces are clearly showing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      ShadowNinja (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 1:36pm

      Re: Where were the

      The NSA stuff was often done with court orders and broad warrants at the government's service.

      The AI issues have no warrants involved. All that's at stake is whatever penalties the corporations agreed to in the contract if they back out of it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Mike Masnick (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 4:34pm

      Re: Where were the

      *Microsoft, Google, Amazon employees when their beloved companies started piping tons of data directly to the NSA - voluntarily?*

      To be fair, there is a record of Microsoft and Google going to court to block intelligence demands for data (not so much with Amazon). In the end they lost. That's very different than a voluntary contract.

      But, really, that's still a different point. The issue here is the difference between upper management and line workers and how much power they have.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        Uriel-238 (profile), 27 Jun 2018 @ 10:02pm

        The NSA wasn't specifically violating the rights of children.

        We heard that they were scooping up internet data and passing around cheesecake shots of adults, but the intent at the time was to track terrorist activity (at which it failed). Only later did they start passing on hints to law enforcement and then they kept quiet about it.

        But none of this suggests they were crushing the souls of children.

        ICE is doing that.

        We humans are freaky about kids. We even are scared to write in the deaths of fictional kids. Like dogs, they survive miraculously in film and literature, even when in history child mortality was always higher than adult.

        What I don't get is how we tolerate child massacres by drone strike. (We kill a lot of them and still call them militants) Well, the pilots end up traumatized about it, but still not a peep from officials, media or the public.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Wendy Cockcroft, 2 Jul 2018 @ 5:44am

          Re: The NSA wasn't specifically violating the rights of children.

          I think it's due to the lack of a face to put to the story, if that makes sense. It wasn't until Alan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Greece that people started taking the Syrian refugee crisis seriously. For five minutes. The dead kid on the beach image re-surfaces in political cartoons from time to time, so he hasn't been forgotten.

          If someone dug up a photo of that could be used as the poster child for the drone strikes there would be more outrage. I seem to remember a quote from Stalin along the lines of "One million deaths is a statistic, one life lost is a tragedy." Sad but true.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 28 Jun 2018 @ 8:22am

        Re: Re: Where were the

        The GP is probably referring to when the NSA was gobbling up all the inter data center traffic from Google et al without the knowledge of any of them, but with the help of the companies providing the lines.

        There has been a massive effort to portray Google et al as willing participants in the sharing of data. In fact, as soon as Google found out that their leased lines were tapped, they immediately started encrypting all the data going between data centers. It's one of the many things we can thank Snowden for.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Ninja (profile), 28 Jun 2018 @ 7:11am

      Re: Where were the

      What Mike said. And even if Microsoft did funnel some data towards the govt through NSLs and other unconstitutional or even rubberstamp processes (FISA) it did fight back the way they could. Most of this was secret though so we only have a few glimpses of all the fighting. Other companies also fought tooth and nail against such overreach and more than that, fought for the right to inform people of what was happening under the secrecy veil.

      I think you are being kind of unfair here.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    CC, 27 Jun 2018 @ 3:12pm

    Yeah, sure...yet these same people have no problem building a Surveillance State working @ Google/FaceBook/Twitter/ETC.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jun 2018 @ 4:24pm

    Just an observation:

    Since the NFL players last year/season were able to bully the owners and league it might have given a sense of empowerment to these workers.

    I suspect that a visa increase for foreign tech workers might dampen the enthusiasm for their demands. Since big business has the govt in it's pocket that's not impossible.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Mike, 2 Jul 2018 @ 3:57pm

      Re:

      Nope. The primary reason foreign tech workers get hired is that there aren't enough here (modulo the H1B shenanigans pulled by various Indian IT contractors). The shortage isn't caused by US universities or a lack of american talent - it's caused by the rate of expansion of the industry (in particular, into technologies which didn't exist a decade ago).

      I was invited to the US 20 years ago, for largely the same reason. Back then the demand was for experts in network protocols, videoconferencing, etc. And although it's easy to pick up new tools or languages on the job, it's much harder to pick up new theory (it takes a focused effort, like mastering mathematics).

      The people that *do* have those skills are in high demand - mainly recent graduates and people who can afford the time off to study. Companies will hire them from anywhere they can get them, and will train them if they can't.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Ninja (profile), 28 Jun 2018 @ 7:06am

    "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. "

    There you are Mike, being a distinguished Google shill. Oh wait. *blue screen of death* - Your favorite troll

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    magar (profile), 14 Aug 2018 @ 5:35am

    pity

    Well, that's pity after all....

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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