Are Tech Workers on the Road to Disarming Our Planet?
Recent news from companies like Salesforce, Google, and Microsoft has seen a segment of their work force protesting their companies’ connections with military policies in support of issues of major concern to those working for disarmament.
Consider the actions of 4,000 Google workers in June last year who protested the renewal of a Contract for Project Maven, a controversial Pentagon Artificial Intelligence Imaging Program with U.S. Department of Defense for analyzing drone footage and succeeded in obtaining a company decision not to renew. Maven was using the company’s artificial intelligence software to improve the sorting and analysis of imagery from drones, and some drones rely on such analysis to identify human targets for lethal missile shots, as was referenced in an earlier blog on this site. (Please see Sept 5th entry on “The Case Against Lethal Drones and Autonomous Weapons Systems.”) But these workers were demanding “a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology” in keeping with a company policy “do no evil.” However, as the New York Times noted in 2018: “Google does other, more innocuous business with the Pentagon, including military advertising on Google properties and Google’s ad platform, as well as providing web apps like email.”
But this action is a step in the right direction.
During the same month, 650 workers at Salesforce, a cloud computing giant, protested the company’s work with a U.S. border agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, involved in the separation of families, indicating that their work made them “complicit, in the inhumane treatment of vulnerable people…. We are particularly concerned about the use of Service Cloud to manage border activities," reads the letter from Salesforce employees.
That letter followed soon after Microsoft workers protested their associations with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, asking the company to cease operations with the agency for essentially the same reasons as Salesforce.
Speaking of Microsoft, more than 100 personnel last month took a stand against a U.S. Army contract for the first time, citing that their participation “crossed the line” into weapons development. Shortly after Microsoft was awarded this $480 million contract, the following letter was released.
As NPR reports, they say the use of the company's HoloLens augmented reality technology under the contract "is designed to help people kill," but engineers were not advised that their work would be used for this purpose.
The workers’ letter reads:
"We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers and refuse to create technology used for warfare and oppression. We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the US military helping one’s country’s government 'increase lethality' using tools we built. We did not sign up to create weapons and we demand a say in how our work is used.”
The letter goes on to designate how the objective of the contract with the US Army is to “'rapidly develop, test and manufacture a single platform that soldiers can use to Fight, Rehearse, and Train that provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.' Microsoft intends to apply its HoloLens Augmented Reality to this purpose. While the company has previously licensed tech to the U.S. Military, it has never crossed the line into weapons development. With this contract, it does. The application of HoloLens [within this contract] is designed to help people kill. It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated ‘video game,’ further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed.
Intent to harm is not an acceptable use of our technology.”
The signatories go on to demand: cancellation of the contract, end of development of any weapons, and creation of an ethics review board with the “power to enforce and publicly validate compliance with the acceptable use policy.”
This letter is included in this blog in support of these efforts and the courage of these employees.
The Microsoft President’s defense of their work with the military is found towards the end of this story on NPR  from which the above information was gleaned.