For months, a growing faction of Google employees has tried to force the company to drop out of a controversial military program called Project Maven. More than 4,000 employees, including dozens of senior engineers, have signed a petition asking Google to cancel the contract. Last week, Gizmodo reported that a dozen employees resigned over the project. “There are a bunch more waiting for job offers (like me) before we do so,” one engineer says. On Friday, employees communicating through an internal mailing list discussed refusing to interview job candidates in order to slow the project’s progress.
Other tech giants have recently secured high-profile contracts to build technology for defense, military, and intelligence agencies. In March, Amazon expanded its newly-launched “Secret Region” cloud services supporting top-secret work for the Department of Defense. The same week that news broke of the Google resignations, Bloomberg reported that Microsoft locked down a deal with intelligence agencies. But there’s little sign of the same kind of rebellion among Amazon and Microsoft workers.
Employees from the three companies say the different responses reflect different company cultures, as well as the specifics of the contracts. Project Maven is an effort to use artificial intelligence to interpret images from drones. Amazon and Microsoft also provide the government with artifical intelligence to analyze data, including image recognition. But Project Maven’s focus on drones combined with Google’s unusually open culture—the company has been riven for months by debates and lawsuits over workplace diversity—has emboldened employees to speak out.
“Amazon culture is more pragmatic and less idealistic than Google,” one Amazon engineer told WIRED. “Amazon’s ethos is about business ruthlessness rather than technical purity, and that does filter down to individual tech employees.”
Employees are not blind to reports about difficult working conditions in Amazon warehouses, but they’re skeptical of broad critiques. “Most long-term employees are either good at ignoring what’s going on in other parts of the company or they don’t think it’s a problem and probably don’t think working with the military is a problem either,” the employee said. In 2017, Amazon shrugged off an employee petition to sever Amazon’s advertising ties with the right-wing news site Breitbart; that left employees feeling powerless about changing the company’s business decisions.
At Microsoft, two employees said neither they nor their coworkers had been aware of the intelligence contract before WIRED asked. One of the employees later said that Microsoft’s defense contract was “totally different” from Project Maven, and no different from any other government agency using Microsoft’s government cloud services
Google and Amazon did not respond to questions. Microsoft declined to comment, but last week the company told WIRED it has refused some commercial projects involving artificial intelligence after input from an internal ethics board. “If something bad happens, folks would and do speak up,” the Microsoft employee said.
Silicon Valley’s history is inextricably linked to military work. The internet itself grew out of a project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and many tech firms benefited from robust defense spending during the Cold War. More recently, however, some tech firms obscured their government ties, particularly after the 2013 revelations of government surveillance from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
New ways of deploying artificial intelligence are bringing tech companies closer to the front line. Google employees protesting Project Maven say the technology will inevitably be used without human analysts to perform targeted kills.
The tech industry has an equally strong tradition of giving individual employees a voice, from all-hands meetings to Google’s “don’t be evil” motto. Now, these two pillars of Silicon Valley’s mythos are in tension, just as the collateral damage from the industry’s rise to power has come into focus, and the public’s lack of visibility into their operations becomes evident.
The election of President Trump may play a role as well. Had the Project Maven contract been revealed before the 2016 presidential election, “I think it’s probably fair to say that the response would have been smaller and different,” because there was less suspicion towards the administration, said one former Google employee, who recently resigned in part because of Project Maven. “We’ve just sort of taken it for granted, ‘Oh yeah, the US is the good guys.’”
— With assistance by Nitasha Tiku