Last month, Gizmodo reported that Google had downgraded its unofficial motto, “Don’t be evil,” in its code of conduct, deleting several instances of the phrase in a document that is meant to guide its employees’ work. The tweak spoke to an uneasy ethical debate now echoing in the corridors of Silicon Valley as tech giants do big business with military and law enforcement, handing the keys of digital innovation to the Pentagon and Homeland Security.
Just last week, Microsoft employees brought into sharp focus the overlap between Silicon Valley’s leading lights and the Trump administration’s cruelest abuses, when they released an open letter calling on their company to cease work as a contractor for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. According to the workers, Microsoft had a $19.4 million contract to help ICE develop its surveillance operations with data-processing and artificial-intelligence technology.
Despite the company’s claims that it did not directly partner with ICE on enforcement operations, the rebelling workers objected to any link to the agency that is ripping apart immigrant families and imprisoning refugees: “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.”
Google executives got a similar disruption earlier this year when employees learned of its partnership with the Pentagon on “Project Maven,” an effort to weaponize artificial intelligence. Google’s contract for the project, which involved “using machine learning to identify vehicles and other objects in drone footage,” according to Gizmodo, was folded into a broader set of corporate-federal “partnerships” aimed at enhancing agencies’ cloud-computing systems. The project was set to yield as much as $250 million (though Google initially claimed the contract would be just $9 million), and more crucially, would come with high-level security clearances that would lay the groundwork for future collaborations with military projects.
It’s unclear when exactly Google began cooperating on the project, but when Google staffers discovered the lucrative backdoor contract, the company had a mutiny on its hands.
Outraged Google workers took their fight public with a petition that garnered about 4,000 signatures, demanding that Google halt military-related projects and issue comprehensive safeguards against the potential abuses of machine learning by nefarious state or corporate actors: “We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties…. This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values.”