Sunday, June 23, 2024

Tech workers should shine a light on the industry’s secretive work with the military

Computer scienceTech workers should shine a light on the industry’s secretive work with the military

No one can make that choice for you. But I can say with confidence born of experience that such choices can be more easily made if workers know what exactly the companies they work for are doing with militaries at home and abroad. And I also know this: those same companies themselves will never reveal this information unless they are forced to do so—or someone does it for them. 

For those who doubt that workers can make a difference in how trillion-dollar companies pursue their interests, I’m here to remind you that we’ve done it before. In 2017, I played a part in the successful #CancelMaven campaign that got Google to end its participation in Project Maven, a contract with the US Department of Defense to equip US military drones with artificial intelligence. I helped bring to light information that I saw as critically important and within the bounds of what anyone who worked for Google, or used its services, had a right to know. The information I released—about how Google had signed a contract with the DOD to put AI technology in drones and later tried to misrepresent the scope of that contract, which the company’s management had tried to keep from its staff and the general public—was a critical factor in pushing management to cancel the contract. As #CancelMaven became a rallying cry for the company’s staff and customers alike, it became impossible to ignore. 

Today a similar movement, organized under the banner of the coalition No Tech for Apartheid, is targeting Project Nimbus, a joint contract between Google and Amazon to provide cloud computing infrastructure and AI capabilities to the Israeli government and military. As of May 10, just over 97,000 people had signed its petition calling for an end to collaboration between Google, Amazon, and the Israeli military. I’m inspired by their efforts and dismayed by Google’s response. Earlier this month the company fired 50 workers it said had been involved in “disruptive activity” demanding transparency and accountability for Project Nimbus. Several were arrested. It was a decided overreach.  

Google is very different from the company it was seven years ago, and these firings are proof of that. Googlers today are facing off with a company that, in direct response to those earlier worker movements, has fortified itself against new demands. But every Death Star has its thermal exhaust port, and today Google has the same weakness it did back then: dozens if not hundreds of workers with access to information it wants to keep from becoming public. 

Not much is known about the Nimbus contract. It’s worth $1.2 billion and enlists Google and Amazon to provide wholesale cloud infrastructure and AI for the Israeli government and its ministry of defense. Some brave soul leaked a document to Time last month, providing evidence that Google and Israel negotiated an expansion of the contract as recently as March 27 of this year. We also know, from reporting by The Intercept, that Israeli weapons firms are required by government procurement guidelines to buy their cloud services from Google and Amazon. 

Leaks alone won’t bring an end to this contract. The #CancelMaven victory required a sustained focus over many months, with regular escalations, coordination with external academics and human rights organizations, and extensive internal organization and discipline. Having worked on the public policy and corporate comms teams at Google for a decade, I understood that its management does not care about one negative news cycle or even a few of them. Management buckled only after we were able to keep up the pressure and escalate our actions (leaking internal emails, reporting new info about the contract, etc.) for over six months. 

The No Tech for Apartheid campaign seems to have the necessary ingredients. If a strategically placed insider released information not otherwise known to the public about the Nimbus project, it could really increase the pressure on management to rethink its decision to get into bed with a military that’s currently overseeing mass killings of women and children.

My decision to leak was deeply personal and a long time in the making. It certainly wasn’t a spontaneous response to an op-ed, and I don’t presume to advise anyone currently at Google (or Amazon, Microsoft, Palantir, Anduril, or any of the growing list of companies peddling AI to militaries) to follow my example. 

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