Microsoft Employees Pressure Leadership To Cancel ICE Contract

Microsoft employees are putting pressure on their management to cancel a contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, part of a backlash against the agency's policy of separating children from their families at the US border.

Illustration: Bryan Menegus (Gizmodo)

In an open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella sent today, employees demanded that the company cancel its $US19.4 million ($26.3 million) contract with ICE and instate a policy against working with clients who violate international human rights law. The text of the employee letter was first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by Gizmodo.

"We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits," the letter, signed by Microsoft employees, states.

"We request that Microsoft cancel its contracts with ICE, and with other clients who directly enable ICE. 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 recognise the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm."

Yesterday, as word of the contract between ICE and Microsoft's Azure cloud platform spread within Microsoft's ranks, some employees were incensed - and considering quitting. Now, Gizmodo has learned, those outside the company are having second thoughts about working with a tech giant that's a "proud" and willing collaborator with ICE.

Microsoft Employees Up In Arms Over Cloud Contract With ICE

Tensions are high within Microsoft, as new scrutiny is given to a partnership between the company's Azure Government cloud computing arm and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), according to several Microsoft employees who spoke to Gizmodo on the condition of anonymity. Two were considering leaving the company based on the response.

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Mat Marquis, a writer and developer, announced on Twitter that he was cancelling his contract with Microsoft in protest against its ICE contract.

"It would be easy to think of coding as neutral - we solve puzzles," Marquis told Gizmodo. "Put a semicolon in the right place and an error goes away, make the website a little faster than it was yesterday; in a vacuum, it's innocuous work.

"It's important, though, to consider the bigger picture for the things we help to build - how can it be misused, who am I supporting with it, who benefits from it and who bears the costs?

"I didn't work with the Azure team; I would never have ended up there, considering my skillset. But the decision to work with an organisation is a decision to help them achieve their goals, and Microsoft has shown that they're willing to lend their name to ICE's goals. I will not."

As a result of its ongoing relationship with ICE, Jer Throp - a deeply-credentialed artist who is currently the US Library of Congress's Innovator-in-Residence - also chose to sever ties with Microsoft. He was scheduled to speak at New York's Civic Hall on Friday as part of the company's Machine Eatable conference series.

"I think that what we're seeing right now with ICE is deeply immoral. It's a violation of human rights on all kinds of levels. As builders and programmers, one our primary concerns has to be the safety of the people who are living in the data systems we create," he told Gizmodo over Twitter DM.

"By doing business with ICE, [Microsoft] is turning tools towards very different purposes than the developers who worked on the tools might have imagined. It's up to those workers, really, to speak up and take action and refuse to let the fruits of their labors be used to put kids in cages."

In order to course-correct, Thorp suggested the company state plainly whether or not it had allowed extant facial recognition tools be used by ICE and/or if it had developed custom artificial intelligence tools for the agency. "Following that, he has to state clearly [whether] MSFT will be continuing their contract with ICE into the future," he wrote.

Gizmodo asked Microsoft those exact questions yesterday. The company instead provided a statement which addressed neither issue.

In a LinkedIn post on Monday, Microsoft president and chief legal officer Brad Smith highlighted the company's work reuniting refugee families in Bosnia and its contributions to Kids in Need of Defence, an organisation that provides legal representation to immigrant children.

"When we keep children with their parents, we not only follow in the footsteps of one of the world's oldest and most important humanitarian traditions, we help build a stronger country," Smith wrote.

The open letter by Microsoft employees echoes one sent by Google employees to their CEO earlier this year, which also called on the company to cancel a controversial government contract. Google employees objected to their company's involvement in Project Maven, a US Defence Department pilot program that uses artificial intelligence to assess drone footage.

Facing employee pressure, Google announced it would not renew its Project Maven contract. The search giant also unveiled new ethical principles for its use of AI, although some employees questioned whether the principles included a firm commitment to following international human rights law.

Microsoft did not immediately respond to our request for comment on the letter.

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