Last month, The Free Thought Project reported that thousands of Google employees were speaking out about the company’s close relationship with the Pentagon, and their involvement in the business of war.
Initially, 3,100 Google employees signed a letter to Google CEO Sundar Pichai, demanding that the company cancel an ongoing contract with the Pentagon that supported a drone program called “Project Maven.” As expected, Google has not backed down, and at least a dozen of the employees who signed the letter are now resigning from the company in protest.
Project Maven is an AI system that is being developed to scan images in drone footage and identify targets. It was launched in April 2017, and according to a Pentagon memo, the objective is to “augment or automate Processing, Exploitation and Dissemination (PED) for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)” in order to “reduce the human factors burden of [full motion video] analysis, increase actionable intelligence, and enhance military decision-making.”
When the issue was raised last month, Google spokesperson Diane Greene assured the concerned employees that the technology “will not operate or fly drones” and “will not be used to launch weapons.”
However, the employees saw right through this excuse and pointed out in their letter that, “While this eliminates a narrow set of direct applications, the technology is being built for the military, and once it’s delivered it could easily be used to assist in these tasks. This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent.”
Some of the employees who are resigning in protest have spoken with Gizmodo anonymously about their decisions.
“At some point, I realized I could not in good faith recommend anyone join Google, knowing what I knew. I realized if I can’t recommend people join here, then why am I still here?” one resigning Google employee told Gizmodo.
“I tried to remind myself right that Google’s decisions are not my decisions. I’m not personally responsible for everything they do. But I do feel responsibility when I see something that I should escalate it,” another said.
“Actions speak louder than words, and that’s a standard I hold myself to as well. I wasn’t happy just voicing my concerns internally. The strongest possible statement I could take against this was to leave,” one resigning employee added.
While employees have attempted to influence Google’s political policies in the past, this is the first time that there was ever a mass resignation over a specific issue. In 2015, a large number of Google employees and users successfully protested Google’s ban on sexually explicit content.
One resigning employee wondered why Google is willing to risk their reputation to be involved in such controversial projects.
“It’s not like Google is this little machine-learning startup that’s trying to find clients in different industries. It just seems like it makes sense for Google and Google’s reputation to stay out of that,” the anonymous employee said.
However, these high-dollar Pentagon contracts seem to be an issue that the company is not willing to budge on. Despite the fact that hundreds of AI experts have also called on Google to stop the program for ethical reasons, the company is showing no signs of backing off.
An open letter signed by hundreds of industry experts stated that:
“We are also deeply concerned about the possible integration of Google’s data on people’s everyday lives with military surveillance data, and its combined application to targeted killing. Google has moved into military work without subjecting itself to public debate or deliberation, either domestically or internationally. While Google regularly decides the future of technology without democratic public engagement, its entry into military technologies casts the problems of private control of information infrastructure into high relief.
Should Google decide to use global internet users’ personal data for military purposes, it would violate the public trust that is fundamental to its business by putting its users’ lives and human rights in jeopardy. The responsibilities of global companies like Google must be commensurate with the transnational makeup of their users. The DoD contracts under consideration by Google, and similar contracts already in place at Microsoft and Amazon, signal a dangerous alliance between the private tech industry, currently in possession of vast quantities of sensitive personal data collected from people across the globe, and one country’s military. They also signal a failure to engage with global civil society and diplomatic institutions that have already highlighted the ethical stakes of these technologies.”
Google has reached a point where they feel that they are untouchable, and they have also reached a point where their government clients are likely far more important to them than their clients in the private sector.
In the past, Google may have been focused on innovation and connecting people through technology, but it is obvious that their focus has now shifted towards military and surveillance applications.
While a dozen or so employees will not make much of a difference to Google’s bottom line, they are setting an important precedent by refusing to work on military projects, and hopefully, others will follow in their footsteps.