Ethics, Politics Pit Tech Employees Against Their Bosses

How would you feel if you learned that your company was helping ICE make a database of immigrant children or building an autonomous killer drone for the Department of Defense? Because of their controversial relationships  with the U.S. government, big tech companies such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon are in hot water, not only with consumers but with their own employees.

A blog post by Microsoft from January has become a hot topic of discussion this week. The post announces that Microsoft is "proud to support" work conducted by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after the government agency awarded Microsoft a contract for its Azure cloud computing services.

Meanwhile, Amazon is facing criticism for selling its Rekognition face recognition technology to law enforcement in the Orlando, Florida and Oregon’s Washington County.

And in March, Google was outed for working with the Department of Defense (DoD) to create artificial intelligence (AI) that can analyze drone footage.

While companies and their employees usually celebrate big deals, both political tensions and a lack of transparency has led many workers at these tech giants to demand these contracts be thrown in the trash. 

Outrage, Boycotts and Apologies

ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, has been drawing a lot of negative attention, due to its policy of separating undocumented or asylum-seeking families. This week, numerous Microsoft workers took to social media to share their discomfort with Microsoft working with ICE. And some people who work outside the company have gone as far as to say they will no longer do business with Microsoft.

As a result, the company was forced to release a statement on Monday stating that it’s not working with ICE or Border Patrol “on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border” and claimed it doesn’t know of Azure being used for such acts. It added that it’s “dismayed by the forcible separation of children from their families at the border”.

In Amazon’s case, the accuracy of facial recognition in general is creating concern.  On Friday, 19 shareholders sent a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos. Backed by activist groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, the group claims such deals with the government will hurt Amazon stock and enable discrimination.

The group cites MIT research finding that “the darker the skin, the more errors arise – up to nearly 35 percent for images of darker skinned women.”

"We are concerned the technology would be used to unfairly and disproportionately target and surveil people of color, immigrants and civil society organizations. We are concerned sales may be expanded to foreign governments, including authoritarian regimes,” the letter says.

Andrew Guthrie Ferguson, University of District Columbia law professor and author of The Rise of Big Data Policing, told CNNMoney this week that there are currently no best practices for determining facial recognition’s accuracy.

"Accuracy is a hard issue to benchmark. As a society, are we okay with a 50 percent false positive rate, or a 20 percent false positive rate, when it comes to stops, arrests, or police investigation? The answer to the accuracy question will determine who gets handcuffed and who does not,” he said.
Amazon has yet to respond publicly.

On Google’s end, news that the company had signed an AI deal with the DoD’s Project Maven hit employees hard after going out on an internal mailing list. DoD’s Project Maven, officially named the Algorithmic Warfare Cross-Functional team, aims to accelerate the DoD’s integration of big data and machine learning and “turn the enormous volume of data available to DoD into actionable intelligence and insights at speed,” the DoD says. Project Maven reports directly to the deputy secretary of defense.

While Google at the time told Gizmodo that its technology was not being used for military combat, employees were still “concerned” and “outraged,” Gizmodo reported in April.

Come May, about 12 employees resigned from Google, and almost 4,000 signed a petition calling for the end of Project Maven and for Google and its contractors to never “build warfare technology.”

What’s the Point?

But can employees really affect tech companies’ interest in obtaining lucrative government contracts that provide both big bucks and the opportunity to lock down a new market?

Amazon has not commented on its situation and, though Microsoft has made a statement saying that it isn't helping to separate families,  it has not terminated its deal with the feds.

Google, on the other hand, announced that it would not renew its contract with the government when it expires in 2019.

In an op-ed for Forbes, Enrique Dans, an innovation professor at Spain’s IE Business School, argues that employees should speak their minds if they feel their company’s practices contradict “basic ethics.” He states that is particularly doable in the tech field since the industry’s growing so rapidly and workers should be able to find employment elsewhere if needed. However, he also points out that in other industries, countries with higher unemployment rates, or countries where it’s more common for business and government to work together, challenging an employer’s ethics can be more difficult.

“Can we and should we put a price on our principles? Is having a conscience the unique preserve of the wealthy and highly skilled? Obviously not, and it is good news that some employees at U.S. companies are setting a precedent. If companies are not going to behave ethically of their own volition, at least we can count on their employees to embarrass them into doing so,” Dans wrote.

Indeed, employees can at least draw attention to practices they find unethical via social media and petitions, which are often picked up by the press and could put pressure on companies to reconsider. It’s reasonable that some tech firms would reconsider a deal if the bad publicity is that damaging, although as we’ve seen this is not always the case, at least not immediately.

At the end of the day, tech executives who are adamant about working for the government may just leave the tech industry and commit to the public sector wholeheartedly.  For example, Eric Shmidt, former CEO and board of directors chairman for Google, and Matt Cutts, former head of Google’s search spam department, both work for the Pentagon now (although they left Google before the Project Maven controversy).

But, as information about how and with whom tech companies choose to work becomes more accessible and widespread, ethical discussions go nationwide thanks to the internet and the press and political landscapes continue to be controversial, it can become harder to wear that badge knowing what it represents.

If employees cannot truly get their company to reasonably align practices with beliefs they hold dear, it may be time to consider if the issue is important enough to warrant a new job search. 

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