Tech workers protest business ties with government

Some employees at Microsoft, Amazon and Google are calling for the companies that hire them to reconsider relationships with the U.S. government, especially work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE,) based on ethical grounds.

The government ties have come under increasing scrutiny as news of refugee parents and children being separated at the U.S. border led employees to question how technologies such as geolocation and facial recognition may be used.  

“This is yet another example of technology advancing at an exponential rate where our policies advance at an incremental rate,” TechRepublic senior reporter Dan Patterson told CBSN. “All of these companies have come out and their chief executives have said ‘this is heartbreaking’…at the same time, there are some big challenges when we look at, say, genetic testing or ankle bracelets on migrants, there are issues with consent.”

“Although tech has been trying to help, there is no magic bullet,” Patterson said, “and there are ambiguous issues with the ethics of how artificial intelligence treats human beings.”


Microsoft, which has a cloud computing contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, insisted last week that it was not working with the government on any projects related to separating children from their parents.

But some of its own employees protested the deal. The New York Times reported Tuesday that more than 100 Microsoft employees wrote to CEO Satya Nadella via an internal message board and urged him to “take an ethical stand” and stop working with ICE.

Microsoft said in a statement it was “dismayed by the forcible separation of children from their families at the border.”

Around 2,300 minors were separated from their parents between May 5 and June 9, according to the Department of Homeland Security.


Earlier this month, Gizmodo reported that Google wouldn’t seek another contract for Project Maven, a Pentagon pilot AI program that could be used for drone strikes, after employees objected.

More than 3,000 Google workers pushed back against the project, signing a petition in April that called for the company to end its work with the Pentagon.

“We believe that Google should not be in the business of war,” the letter stated. That led Google to promise to create ethical guidelines relating to military contracts.


Last week, Amazon employees sent a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos with concerns about how the retail giant’s facial recognition program might be used by the Department of Homeland Security, Gizmodo reported.

“In the face of this immoral US policy, and the US’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,” they wrote.

Amazon came under fire in May for the program, called Rekognition, after the ACLU reported it was being marketed to government agencies. Those reports raised privacy concerns, with civil rights groups noting the technology could be used against communities who already are targets for surveillance—such as political activists, people of color and immigrants.

“The employees at technology firms have said, ‘Look, our tech is capable of many things, but if we don’t rein it in now and apply values then it could run away from us and be used for some potentially horrible things,'” Patterson said. 

— CBS News’ Jillian Harding and Kate Gibson contributed to this report.

© 2018 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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