USA: Employees urge tech companies to withdraw bids for $10 million contract with Department of Defense

Employees are increasing pressure on tech companies to withdraw from a bid for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract with the Department of Defense (DoD). Following DoD Chief John H. Gibson II's statement that the programme would seek to increase the "lethality of our department”, employees from Microsoft and Google have expressed public concern that government officials could use their technology to violate basic human rights. On 8 October 2018, Google announced that it was pulling out of the running for the JEDI contract. Microsoft employees wrote an open letter asking the company not to bid on the JEDI contract, expressing the need for clear ethical guidelines and meaningful accountability governing how we determine which uses of our technology are acceptable, and which are off the table. 

We invited Microsoft to respond to the employee letter and articles below. In response, they sent a blog post by Brad Smith, President of Microsoft, which addresses the issues. This blog post is available below.

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Company response
26 October 2018

Microsoft response: technology and the US military

Author: Brad Smith, Microsoft

Over the last few months there has been a debate in our industry about when and how technology companies should work with the government, and specifically whether companies should supply digital technology to the military... Our work as a company in this space is based on three straightforward convictions... we believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft. Second, we appreciate the important new ethical and policy issues that artificial intelligence is creating for weapons and warfare. We want to use our knowledge and voice as a corporate citizen to address these in a responsible way through the country’s civic and democratic processes. Third, we... don’t ask or expect everyone who works at Microsoft to support every position the company takes... As is always the case, if our employees want to work on a different project or team – for whatever reason – we want them to know we support talent mobility. 

... Recently Microsoft bid on an important defense project...“JEDI” – which will re-engineer the Defense Department’s end-to-end IT infrastructure, from the Pentagon to field-level support of the country’s servicemen and women... We readily decided this summer to pursue this project, given our longstanding support for the Defense Department... We believe that the debate about the role of the tech sector and the military in this country has sometimes missed two fundamental points. First, we believe that the people who defend our country need and deserve our support. And second, to withdraw from this market is to reduce our opportunity to engage in the public debate about how new technologies can best be used in a responsible way. We are not going to withdraw from the future. In the most positive way possible, we are going to work to help shape it.

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Article
18 October 2018

Tech employees push Silicon Valley to put ethics before profit

Author: Alexia Fernández Campbell, Vox

"How tech employees are pushing Silicon Valley to put ethics before profit," 18 October 2018

The chorus of tech workers demanding American tech companies put ethics before profit is growing louder... In recent days, employees at Google and Microsoft have been pressuring company executives to drop bids for a $10 billion contract to provide cloud computing services to the Department of Defense. As part of the contract, known as JEDI, engineers would build cloud storage for military data; there are few public details about what else it would entail. But one thing is clear: The project would involve using artificial intelligence to make the US military a lot deadlier... Thousands of Google employees reportedly pressured the company to drop its bid for the project, and many had said they would refuse to work on it... On October 8, Google announced that it was pulling out of the running for the JEDI contract. Now Microsoft employees are pushing executives to do the same.

Employees at different tech companies are worried about different types of projects, but they do have one thing in common: a shared concern about government contracts, and the risk that government officials can use their technology to violate basic human rights.

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Article
15 October 2018

Microsoft employees urge company not to pursue $10 billion Pentagon contract

Author: Ali Breland, The Hill

A group of Microsoft employees urged the company... [to] forgo bidding on the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract, a $10 billion project in which Microsoft would provide cloud computing services to the Department of Defense... "“When we decided to work at Microsoft, we were doing so in the hopes of ‘empowering every person on the planet to achieve more,’ not with the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality,” the employees wrote. For those who say that another company will simply pick up JEDI where Microsoft leaves it, we would ask workers at that company to do the same... A race to the bottom is not an ethical position."... The employees also criticized Microsoft’s lack of transparency in the matter, saying that unclear conditions pertaining to the contract make it hard for employees to understand the potentially negative effects of the code they write... When asked for comment a Microsoft spokesperson said that the company had “submitted its bid on the JEDI contract on the October 12 deadline." "While we don’t have a way to verify the authenticity of this letter, we always encourage employees to share their views with us,” the spokesperson said... The employees referenced a similar effort by thousands of workers at Google who organized against their company also pursuing the JEDI contract, on the grounds of preserving human rights. Google executives ultimately capitulated to their workers' demands and pulled out from the contract.

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Article
12 October 2018

An open letter to Microsoft: don’t bid on the US military’s project JEDI

Author: Employees of Microsoft, Medium

We joined Microsoft to create a positive impact on people and society, with the expectation that the technologies we build will not cause harm or human suffering. Tuesday’s blog post serves as a public declaration of Microsoft’s intent to bid on the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract — a contract that represents a $10 billion project to build cloud services for the Department of Defense... Many Microsoft employees don’t believe that what we build should be used for waging war. When we decided to work at Microsoft, we were doing so in the hopes of “empowering every person on the planet to achieve more,” not with the intent of ending lives and enhancing lethality... Like those who took action at Google, Salesforce, and Amazon, we ask all employees of tech companies to ask how your work will be used, where it will be applied, and act according to your principles.

... [W]e ask, what are Microsoft’s A.I. Principles, especially regarding the violent application of powerful A.I. technology? How will workers, who build and maintain these services in the first place, know whether our work is being used to aid profiling, surveillance, or killing?... If Microsoft is to be accountable for the products and services it makes, we need clear ethical guidelines and meaningful accountability governing how we determine which uses of our technology are acceptable, and which are off the table. 

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Article
11 October 2018

Google won’t bid on $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing deal citing potential conflicts with AI principles

Author: Naomi Nix, Bloomberg

"Google Drops Out of Pentagon's $10 Billion Cloud Competition," 8 October 2018

Alphabet Inc.’s Google has decided not to compete for the Pentagon’s cloud-computing contract valued at as much as $10 billion, saying the project may conflict with its corporate values... Google’s announcement on Monday came just months after the company decided not to renew its contract with a Pentagon artificial intelligence program, after extensive protests from employees of the internet giant about working with the military. The company then released a set of principles designed to evaluate what kind of artificial intelligence projects it would pursue. 

... “We are not bidding on the JEDI contract because first, we couldn’t be assured that it would align with our AI Principles," a Google spokesman said... The Tech Workers Coalition, which advocates for giving employees a say in technology company decisions, said in a statement that Google’s decision to withdraw from the cloud competition stemmed from “sustained” pressure from tech workers who “have significant power, and are increasingly willing to use it.”... Google is behind other technology companies such as Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. in obtaining government cloud-security authorizations that depend on the sensitivity of data a service is hosting.

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