For months, a growing faction of Google employees has tried to force the company to drop out of a controversial military program called Project Maven. More than 4,000 employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a petition asking Google to cancel the contract. Last week, Gizmodo reported that a dozen employees resigned over the project. “There are a bunch more waiting for job offers (like me) before we do so,” one engineer says. On Friday, employees communicating through an internal mailing list discussed refusing to interview job candidates in order to slow the project’s progress.
Other tech giants have recently secured high-profile contracts to build technology for defense, military, and intelligence agencies. In March, Amazon expanded its newly-launched “Secret Region” cloud services supporting top-secret work for the Department of Defense. The same week that news broke of the Google resignations, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft locked down a deal with intelligence agencies. But there’s little sign of the same kind of rebellion among Amazon and Microsoft workers.
Employees from the three companies say the different responses reflect different company cultures, as well as the specifics of the contracts. Project Maven is an effort to use artificial intelligence to interpret images from drones. Amazon and Microsoft also provide the government with artifical intelligence to analyze data, including image recognition. But Project Maven’s focus on drones combined with Google’s unusually open culture—the company has been riven for months by debates and lawsuits over workplace diversity—has emboldened employees to speak out.
“Amazon culture is more pragmatic and less idealistic than Google,” one Amazon engineer told WIRED. “Amazon’s ethos is about business ruthlessness rather than technical purity, and that does filter down to individual tech employees.”
Employees are not blind to reports about difficult working conditions in Amazon warehouses, but they’re skeptical of broad critiques. “Most long-term employees are either good at ignoring what’s going on in other parts of the company or they don’t think it’s a problem and probably don’t think working with the military is a problem either,” the employee said. In 2017, Amazon shrugged off an employee petition to sever Amazon’s advertising ties with the right-wing news site Breitbart; that left employees feeling powerless about changing the company’s business decisions.
At Microsoft, two employees said neither they nor their coworkers had been aware of the intelligence contract before WIRED asked. One of the employees later said that Microsoft’s defense contract was “totally different” from Project Maven, and no different from any other government agency using Microsoft’s government cloud services
Google and Amazon did not respond to questions. Microsoft declined to comment, but last week the company told WIRED it has refused some commercial projects involving artificial intelligence after input from an internal ethics board. “If something bad happens, folks would and do speak up,” the Microsoft employee said.
‘Amazon culture is more pragmatic and less idealistic than Google.’
Silicon Valley’s history is inextricably linked to military work. The internet itself grew out of a project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and many tech firms benefited from robust defense spending during the Cold War. More recently, however, some tech firms obscured their government ties, particularly after the 2013 revelations of government surveillance from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
New ways of deploying artificial intelligence are bringing tech companies closer to the front line. Google employees protesting Project Maven say the technology will inevitably be used without human analysts to perform targeted kills.
The tech industry has an equally strong tradition of giving individual employees a voice, from all-hands meetings to Google’s “don’t be evil” motto. Now, these two pillars of Silicon Valley’s mythos are in tension, just as the collateral damage from the industry’s rise to power has come into focus, and the public’s lack of visibility into their operations becomes evident.
The election of President Trump may play a role as well. Had the Project Maven contract been revealed before the 2016 presidential election, “I think it’s probably fair to say that the response would have been smaller and different,” because there was less suspicion towards the administration, said one former Google employee, who recently resigned in part because of Project Maven. “We’ve just sort of taken it for granted, ‘Oh yeah, the US is the good guys.’”
But as tech giants settle deeper into their role as ordinary incumbents — fending off regulators, gobbling up markets, currying favor on Capitol Hill — it’s not clear whether employees can still play on a sense of idealism.
In February, when employees objected to Google’s sponsorship of the Conservative Political Action Conference, the company held a Q&A with Google executives in Washington. The takeaway for some was that Google is simply too big to make decisions based on values, although the message was couched in softer terms.
The debate inside Google may presage internal discussions elsewhere. One former Microsoft employee chose not to work on a facial-recognition project several years ago because of concerns about how the technology would be used. “Too much data and not enough ethics,” said the ex-employee.
Academics share the same concern. More than 1,000 researchers have signed an open letter supporting the Google employees’ petition and asking the company to drop the contract; signers include Larry Page’s former adviser at Stanford, Terry Winograd. One of the letter’s organizers, Peter Asaro, an associate professor at The New School, says there are no plans for similar letter for Microsoft or Amazon, “as there has not been a similar effort by employees in other companies.”
Still, unrest at Google may have sown doubt elsewhere about the tech industry’s dealings with the government. The nonprofit group Coworker.org has been contacted by employees at other tech companies who want to know about any AI work their companies may be doing for the US military. “It’s not clear to vast swaths of their workforces, and they want to know what they’re involved in,” says Yana Calou, an engagement and training manager at Coworker.org.
Tech Workers Coalition, an employee alliance with its own anti-Maven petition, has assembled a list of 13 tech companies with military connections, using a shared Google Doc.
The resignations—12 people of uncertain rank among an 80,000 person workforce—don’t appear to have shaken Google as much as the petition. One employee told WIRED the names attached to the Project Maven petition stood apart. “This time there are people who are generally reasonable and widely respected yet seem disturbed by this and really want Google to take some sort of position on ethical boundaries, even if it doesn’t lead to cancelling the immediate Maven contract,” the employee said.
Bloomberg reports that the three tech giants are still vying for a multibillion contract to provide cloud services for the Defense Department through the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure Cloud, or JEDI, a program the Pentagon said was designed to “increase lethality and readiness.”
Maciej Ceglowski, who runs a grassroots group called Tech Solidarity that has organized events with tech workers around the country, doubts the possibility of a worker-driven uprising. “Getting from griping to organizing seems to be an insurmountable step,” he says. “I feel like the closest we came was around the travel ban, when people were really agitated and it was their coworkers and families on the line.”
Without a realistic chance to effect change, “It’s superhuman to ask people to organize around high ethical principles at the risk of their livelihood,” Ceglowski says. Big tech poses other roadblocks. “These organizations are big enough that people can rationalize they are working for a good subgroup of it,” Ceglowski says.
Yasha Levine is the author of the book Surveillance Valley, which chronicles Google’s integration with the military starting in 2003 with the purchase of a CIA-backed mapping startup that would become Google Earth—through the company’s more recent work with the predictive policing startup PredPol.
Levine says he’s not surprised that Project Maven prompted employees to act. “It creeps people out, understandably, because drones are associated with drone strikes and missile strikes and murder and a lot of collateral damage and a lot of civilians being hurt,” he said. However, Levine thinks Google’s predictive policing work should get as much attention. “It’s very close to our life and has a big impact on inner city communities and minority communities.”