By Brett Wilkins

Here at Ethics In Tech we’re quite used to hearing people snicker at the very name of our organization. Apparently there are quite a few people out there who think of “ethics in tech” as something of an oxymoron. However, in every tech giant there are employee activists who take very public — and sometimes risky — stands against injustices committed or enabled by their employers. At Google, a group called Googlers for Human Rights (@EthicalGooglers) is doing just that.

Trading Integrity for Profit?

Last week, Googlers for Human Rights tweeted a petition, originally published at Medium, calling on the company to declare that it won’t work with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Customs and Border Protection (CBP) or Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) as the government prepares to solicit bids on a massive cloud computing contract.

“In working with CBP, ICE, or ORR, Google would be trading its integrity for a bit of profit, and joining a shameful lineage,” the petition states. “We have only to look to IBM’s role working with the Nazis during the Holocaust to understand the role that technology can play in automating mass atrocity.”

The petition details border abuses including “caging and harming asylum seekers, separating children from parentsillegally detaining refugees and US citizens, and perpetrating a system of abuse and malign neglect that has led to the deaths of at least 7 children in detention camps.”

“These abuses are illegal under international human rights law, and immoral by any standard,” it states.

We Refuse to Be Complicit’

The petition, which as of Monday morning had over 1,000 signatures, notes that “Google has repeatedly advertised its commitments to implementing ethical guardrails on its tech,” citing the company’s AI Principles, which bar it from developing technologies “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.”

“By any interpretation, CBP and ICE are in grave violation of international human rights law,” it states.

The petition concludes:  

History is clear: the time to say NO is now. We refuse to be complicit. It is unconscionable that Google, or any other tech company, would support agencies engaged in caging and torturing vulnerable people. And we are not alone — the world is watching and the facts are clear. We stand with workers and advocates across the industry who are demanding that the tech industry refuse to provide the infrastructure for mass atrocity.

Big Tech Is Complicit, But Workers Resist

Unfortunately, plenty of tech companies have traded their integrity for profit, and are profiting handsomely from the misery at the border and in government concentration camps for undocumented immigrants. A far-from-exhaustive list includes:

  • Amazon and Palantir — A group of concerned Amazon employees has been urging the company since last year to cut ties with ICE. Amazon has partnered with Palantir, the data analysis firm co-founded by billionaire investor and Donald Trump supporter Peter Thiel, to provide facial recognition software to government and law enforcement agencies. Palantir, whose contract is worth $53 million, runs on Amazon Web Services. The company was also paid $39 million for the “operations and maintenance” of FALCON, its system for tracking immigrants. “In the face of this immoral US policy, and the US’ 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,” Amazon employees wrote in a June 2018 letter to CEO Jeff Bezos.
  • Salesforce — The San Francisco-based cloud computing company has made positive headlines for its philanthropic endeavors and for supporting measures that other tech companies opposed, such as a corporate tax to fund homeless services. However, the company has come under fire for a lucrative contract with CBP. Once again, concerned employees spoke out: “We are particularly concerned about the use of Service Cloud to manage border activities,” a June 2018 letter to CEO Marc Benioff signed by over 650 Salesforce workers states. “Given the inhumane separation of children from their parents currently taking place at the border, we believe that our core value of Equality is at stake and that Salesforce should reexamine our contractual relationship with CBP and speak out against its practices.”
  • Microsoft — The world’s biggest software company, which handles ICE’s data processing, also saw the circulation of a letter signed by hundreds of employees denouncing the company’s complicity in government crimes. “We request that Microsoft cancel its contracts with ICE, and with other clients who directly enable ICE,” the letter said. “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.” Still, Microsoft had said it was “proud”of the work it was doing for ICE as part of its $19.4 million contract.
  • Hewlett-Packard Enterprises — The HP spinoff won a $75 million contract to manage CBP’s network operations center, and also received $39 million from ICE even while declaring that it “is opposed to any policy that separates children from their families.” Meanwhile, HP’s consumer branch condemned the Trump administration’s migrant family separation policy.
  • Dell Federal Systems — The Texas-based company has $22 million in active contracts, most of them for software licenses, with ICE. Dell also provides support for Microsoft products utilized by the agency.
  • Comcast, Time-Warner — Both companies provide internet service to ICE facilities.
  • Motorola — Wear Your Voice reports the telecommunications giant has received more than $18 million for multiple GPS and communications projects.
  • Pen-Link — ICE signed a $2.4 million contract with this little-known surveillance company that mines communications data and provides “real-time” tracking.

Once again, Ethics In Tech salutes the actions of courageous tech workers of conscience who are standing up and speaking out against US human rights abuses in ever-growing numbers. We again implore all companies, especially those in the tech sector, to cut ties with CBP, ICE and any other government agencies involved in operating migrant concentration camps. There are ethics in tech, and more often than not they’re born from employee activism, not C-suite decisions. Kudos to Googlers for Human Rights and all the other tech workers like them who place people over profit and put their names and jobs on the line for more humane world.

(Photo Credit: Lynda M. González/KUT)

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