Would You Quit a Tech Project Over Ethical Concerns?

Engineers at Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are demanding the companies put ethics before profits

2 November 2018

More and more are demanding their employers make ethics a priority. They are protesting, signing petitions, and even quitting their job.

A research scientist recently left Google over concerns that the search engine he was helping to develop would be used by the Chinese government to censor and monitor its citizens, according to an article in The New York Times.

More than 3,000 of the company’s employees signed a letter in April asking the CEO to cancel its involvement in Project Maven, a U.S. Defense Department drone survellience project, according to news reports. The workers said the artificial intelligence–powered system they were developing to detect vehicles and other objects captured in military-drone videos would be used to develop advanced weapons. The workers said the project betrayed Google’s motto: Don’t Be Evil. The company announced in June that it would not renew the contract when the current deal expires next year.

An anonymous Amazon employee reported in a Medium op-ed published last month that more than 450 coworkers signed a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos demanding the company stop selling its facial-recognition software Rekognition to law enforcement agencies. Rekognition can identify, track, and analyze people in real time and recognize up to 100 people in a single image. It can quickly compare information it collects against databases featuring tens of millions of faces. The American Civil Liberties Union recently found that the system’s algorithm makes false identifications, especially for people of color.

“Law enforcement has already started using facial recognition, with virtually no public oversight or debate or restrictions on use from Amazon,” the employee wrote.

Microsoft says it will continue to sell software to the U.S. military despite a petition signed by hundreds of its workers concerned about a contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement that the company had said included AI software, according to Bloomberg. The employees were concerned about providing cloud and AI tools that could fuel violent global conflict.

“We readily decided this summer to pursue these projects, given our longstanding support for the Defense Department,” the company’s president and chief legal officer, Brad Smith, wrote in a blog post. “We appreciate that technology is creating new ethical and policy issues that the country needs to address in a thoughtful and wise manner. That’s why it’s important that we engage as a company in the public dialogue on these issues.”

Microsoft said it is working with the U.S. government on policy and ethical issues raised by new technologies, including engaging with parts of the government that oversee the military.

Is your company becoming more open about ethical considerations? Are there ways it could better allay employee concerns?

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