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 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 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. 

Create a new thread in the Reviews comments forum about this subject
42 comments
Comment from the forums
    Your comment
  • fredfinks
    My mined data identifies as a separated illegal immigrant child. ICE ICE baby
  • USAFRet
    The latest company?
    So having MS reps and advisors on military installations all over the world, US and other, for over 2 decades...that hasn't done it?
    The billions of dollars they made from selling the military Windows and Office was OK?

    Only now?
  • fredfinks
    Anonymous said:
    The latest company?
    So having MS reps and advisors on military installations all over the world, US and other, for over 2 decades...that hasn't done it?
    The billions of dollars they made from selling the military Windows and Office was OK?

    Only now?


    The latest software versions are high in gluten and support the patriarchy.
    This is the age where teaching mathematics is considered to 'perpetuate white privilege'. (im not joking. this is the nonsense coming out of universities)
  • kingbob17
    This is dumb
  • mihen
    There is a lot of misinformation on child separations right now. It's actually kind of amazing the media blitz of misinformation on the subject.
    a) Asylum seekers do not make up a significant proportion of those in this situation. It's just easier to sell asylum seekers than illegal immigrants.
    b) Politicians want access to these children for photo-ops for mid-term elections.
    c) People illegally crossing the border are now being charged criminally. It would not make sense to keep children with their parents if their parents are in jail. Just as when someone in the US is charged with a crime and their children no longer have a legal guardian, they are placed into protective custody. Criminal charges are actually pretty common in other countries when crossing the border illegally.
    d) When people give their opinion on the subject a whole slew of immigration related content is interspersed in the conversation. From DACA to Refugees.
  • kingbob17
    As the other commenters have pointed out: this child-parent policy has been in place since the Obama years and no one seemed to bat an eye (there is video of Hilary supporting such policies from 2014). The IG report must have had some stuff in it the MSM didn't want people knowing. It's so obvious that this whole thing is a manufactured scandal (again, been going on for years). I am disappointed in Scharon for being so uninformed.

    Shame on Tom's hardware. Also, I have good money on them removing the comment section soon since they don't want the idiot masses to have their propaganda tainted.
  • Anonymous
    What you get is a bunch of far left employees who lives revolve around their political activism, as its practically their religion, constantly demanding that people who don't agree with them be fired, and the company not interact with them.

    Twitter is the biggest cause of this as it has created this echo chamber for this new religion of progressive politics. These people must be seen being virtuous by their fellows. They must be seen as being the most extreme.

    Google is a good example of this. They force employees to take diversity classes that have no scientifically proven benefit to assuage their progressive religion. Yet Google's actual diversity numbers have barely changed in 4 years, because none of this progressive religion stuff actually works! But an employee who points that out is of course being a heretic and must be purged! Which is of course why Damore lost his job after trying to explain to them why their system wasn't working.

    This new religion is wide spread in tech, and demands people convert or hide. I would be amazed if my post here is not deleted for heresy. Most tech sites, ArsTechnica, Tech Crunch, Kotaku... are all dominated by members of the progressive religion and engage in widespread censorship to ensure an echo chamber. It will be interesting to find out if Toms is too.
  • ravewulf
    Well, at least /some/ people care about protesting fascist governments
  • Tanyac
    Let's be clear; the wealthy do not suffer from conscience, ethircs, morality or remorse. They're in it for the bucks, and they don't care who they destroy along the way. And war is big money, whether the people want it or not.

    But suggesting to the hard workers that they should think very seriously about whether they stand up for ethics and moral behavior based on the likelihood of finding another job is just plain wrong. There need to be protections for whistle blowers and those that stand up against "profit at the cost of the people" - Not punishment!
  • alextheblue
    Anonymous said:
    This new religion is wide spread in tech, and demands people convert or hide. I would be amazed if my post here is not deleted for heresy. Most tech sites, ArsTechnica, Tech Crunch, Kotaku... are all dominated by members of the progressive religion and engage in widespread censorship to ensure an echo chamber. It will be interesting to find out if Toms is too.
    Tom's at least doesn't engage in the kind of active suppression of "wrongthink" like some of those others, who work fervently to scrub anyone who speaks against doctrine. So basically your post is safe.

    Anonymous said:
    Google is a good example of this. They force employees to take diversity classes that have no scientifically proven benefit to assuage their progressive religion. Yet Google's actual diversity numbers have barely changed in 4 years, because none of this progressive religion stuff actually works! But an employee who points that out is of course being a heretic and must be purged! Which is of course why Damore lost his job after trying to explain to them why their system wasn't working.
    Poor Damore. He was actually left-leaning but he was an engineer, a numbers guy. What he didn't know was facts are hate speech. He got royally screwed over by Google. A lot of women who are actually in tech came out and defended him but it didn't matter... he went against their driving ideology, and that's a capital offense in Google. If you're a conservative working at Google, you have to stay in the closet.

    Also I love how people use the whitewashed term "undocumented". I'm gonna start entering neighbors houses while they're gone. Eat their food, nap on their couch. If they don't like it, I'll just tell them I'm an undocumented resident of this house now.
  • rwal22
    Wow when did this site become a haven for the right wing tinfoil hat conspiracy club?
  • ubercake
    Ethics? People who knowingly break laws are unethical.
  • kingbob17
    RWAL22--
    Conspiracy? You mean like "MUH RUSSIA"?
    Or the IG report that specifically names FBI agents vowing to stop Trump? I'm having trouble finding what you thing a "conspiracy theory is". Of course you conveniently leave out any "proof" or even name what you think the conspiracy theories are! Typical.
  • almarcy
    Oh, golly. Money is not Holy Writ? Code is not pure poetry? Technology not only makes very good ball bearings but bombs and bullets? What is this world coming to? Sigh. Hard to see anything clearly in a sandstorm. Earth bocks its trash around. Some watch, and comment. Sigh. Enjoy something more satisfying. A good fart can bring relief from stress ;)
  • jabliese
    Oh goody, ethics 101:

    What if Amazon's recognition software stops a terrorist attack? (This one boggles me the most. Who else but government are you going to sell this software?)

    What if Google's AI stops an attack on civilians?

    What if Microsoft... nah, can't say anything good about Microsoft. But, seriously folks, do you think ICE would be better off not using computers?

    For more interesting discussions, Ethics 101 is available at your local college/university.
  • redgarl
    If you think tech companies are not going to jump into government contracting, you are out of your mind.

    The government wants it, the government is going to get it. It is either going to be big tech companies that can be accountable, or shaddy companies without accountability.
  • redgarl
    Anonymous said:
    There is a lot of misinformation on child separations right now. It's actually kind of amazing the media blitz of misinformation on the subject.
    a) Asylum seekers do not make up a significant proportion of those in this situation. It's just easier to sell asylum seekers than illegal immigrants.
    b) Politicians want access to these children for photo-ops for mid-term elections.
    c) People illegally crossing the border are now being charged criminally. It would not make sense to keep children with their parents if their parents are in jail. Just as when someone in the US is charged with a crime and their children no longer have a legal guardian, they are placed into protective custody. Criminal charges are actually pretty common in other countries when crossing the border illegally.
    d) When people give their opinion on the subject a whole slew of immigration related content is interspersed in the conversation. From DACA to Refugees.


    Sorry, it is not the same in Canada... or any other major country in the world... this is the issue.
  • Pedasc
    As a Canadian I find this whole situation odd and didn't understand it so I did some actual research.

    The changes to the laws that allow this actually came in place during Clinton and Bush Jr. presidencies (why do people insist on giving Obama so much credit for these things). It was mostly meant to apply to people who were already criminals outside illegal immigration. The current crisis is related to a policy change that the current White House put in place to detain illegal immigrants in the same manner as other criminals. It is correct that the laws were there and that this was happening before so some outrage can legitimately be levied at the previous governments but this is at a whole new level that hasn't been seen before.

    Trump gets a lot of unwarranted bad press but this one is squarely on him and his staff as they can actually fix it at any time with no change to any current law. Instead it is being used as a political sledgehammer to try to force his opponents to cave to demands and to successfully get them to overreact. He wants to polarize everyone as much as possible so he can get the extreme reactions he needs from his opponents.

    The immigrants do need to shoulder some blame but to be fair to them thousands have done this before and this never happened to them. They really got no warning because Trump wanted the shock factor to hit as hard as possible.

    I do have to say that it is actually working based on the reactions from the press (on both sides), Microsoft employees, as well as the comments here. They are just eating this up with people recording crying children and others equating crossing a border to a physical assault. This makes no sense to me except as a purely political move. A completely amoral one but also brilliant.
  • shpankey
    It's not Trump's, it was Session's policy.
  • majorlag
    If your a environmentalist, do you work for a logging company and complain, no you get a different job. It is not the employer responsibility to make your feel warm and fuzzy about your aligned philosophies.

    Reminds me of where we would be if it were not religion stiffing technology in the days of ol. Now it is the precious snowflakes stiffing technology.

    A business number one goal, is to make money, otherwise you can not run a business and keep going. Does that give them a free pass to break the law, NO, but most of these issues are one's personal political views that are trying to be forced upon others, again if you don't support the businesses way of thinking, then go else ware.

    Microsoft, first off these people coming into the country illegally, have broke the law. If parents of children both break the law, then kids get sent to the state, this has been the law for anyone living here in the US. Don't break the law, problem solved.

    Amazon, so we all want to be protected and not have another 9-11, but we don't want to have the tools to help protect us, I am not sure how to tell you this, but facial recognition is already being used, Amazon just has better or equivalent tech, so again they are a business and wish to make money, how is this a bad thing. You cannot innovate or make technology better if you never use it.

    Google, again drones are already here, are already being used, so should we make them more efficient so that only the bad guys are removed, or should we just go back to the old days of just dropping a nuke and take out everyone. Scalpel not chainsaw.

    Tomshardware, and every other tech news site, this politicization of technology news is getting out of hand. Why is it all of a sudden OK to push politics and ones personal opinion on others? Do your job and I don't know, give us unbiased news about technology. One thing this current administration has taught me, honest Journalism is dead. Some one has a political motive behind every story, even when it should be about technology and about facts about said technology, and not about hot topic issues that are blown apart and conveniently blamed on one guy, when those topics have been around for a very long time. The world's problem scapegoated to one person does not help society.

    Lets get back to why everyone came here, Technology NEWS without all the political OPINIONS. And of course let the people debate the never-ending fun of Red vs Green vs Blue.