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.
Microsoft Satya Nadella meeting with the president nearly one year ago to the day. Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty)
The partnership was first made public in late January, where Microsoft announced it was “proud to support” the agency’s efforts – but given the size of the company, many employees were not even aware any such agreement was in place until recently. A likely catalyst is the recent revelations that ICE separates asylum-seeking families and confines children in cages.
In response, the announcement post was “briefly deleted […] after seeing commentary in social media,” according to a Microsoft spokesperson who refused to divulge the specific nature of the Azure/ICE partner arrangement. “This was a mistake and as soon as it was noticed the blog was reverted to previous language.”
Internally, as news of the contract spread, employees expressed their dissent. “This is the sort of thing that would make me question staying,” one employee told Gizmodo. Another echoed, “I’ll seriously consider leaving if I’m not happy with how they handle this.”
Microsoft condemned family separation by ICE in a statement to Gizmodo but declined to specify if specific tools within Azure Government, such as Face API – facial recognition software – were in use by the agency. The company also did not comment on whether it had assisted in building artificial intelligence tools for ICE, something the agency has been seeking (and courting Microsoft over) for some time.
“My sense is that the government cloud group is very much a sales/consulting group, so it’s definitely plausible they could have been working on something specific, but if so then it would likely have been helping them customise existing public product tech,” a current Microsoft employee told Gizmodo.
The possibility of Microsoft providing cheap, efficient facial recognition software to ICE comes less than a month after the ACLU discovered Amazon had given law enforcement agencies access to its similar in-house tool, Rekognition, and several months after Gizmodo first revealed Google had agreed to assist in Project Maven, a program to help develop artificial intelligence for drone footage analysis for the Pentagon.
Microsoft told Gizmodo it was “dismayed” by ICE’s actions and that it “urge[d] the administration to change its policy and Congress to pass legislation ensuring children are no longer separated from their families”. Absent from its statement was whether it would continue to provide its cloud services to ICE.
As more employees become aware of the agreement – and the recent activities of ICE – it remains to be seen what response these internal frustrations will draw from Microsoft’s leadership.