Tech companies that specialize in surveillance and cloud-based services are discovering an uncomfortable truth about this century’s new economy: Today’s skilled workers aren’t afraid to speak up, and speak up loudly if they feel their employer isn’t living up to its ethical potential.
In the past few months, a growing number of companies have found themselves in a ticklish situation when they have signed service or product agreements with the federal government. The leadership at Microsoft, Google, Amazon and most recently Salesforce have all received letters from their employees questioning the companies’ decisions to enter into contracts that provide services to federal agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Defense (DOD).After the American Civil Liberties Union published information that Amazon's Rekognition facial software was being used by the federal government to track civilians including alleged illegal immigrants at the border, Amazon employees calling for the company to cancel the contract. Civil rights organizations followed suit, demanding that CEO Jeff Bezos "stop powering government surveillance infrastructure." The appeal doesn't seem to have slowed Amazon's enthusiasm for cloud software. The company reported last week that its revenue from Amazon Web Services (AWS), which includes the Rekognition software, has jumped 49 percent. Google, faced with resignations and outrage from employees about its contract to sell artificial intelligence software to the federal government, is one of the only companies that has agreed to implement new guidelines restricting the use of its products. In June the company said it would phase out the contract that nets Google more than $130 million and allows the government to use its program, Project Maven, to analyze footage in search for military targets. But questions about whether the program is also being used to track civilians in non-battle settings have forced it to reconsider the lucrative contract with the Department of Defense.
And earlier this month, Salesforce found itself in the news as well. In June, some 650 employees signed an open letter to the CEO Marc Benioff calling on him to reconsider allowing Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to use the company's cloud software in hiring processes. While the company declined to say at the time whether it would cancel the contract, it did take what some might consider innovative steps to dispel the controversy, by donating a quarter-million dollars to Raices.
The small Texas-based nonprofit gained attention earlier this year for raising funds to cover the legal costs of Latino families that had been separated by ICE at the border. The fact that the Trump administration says it is no longer separating children from incarcerated parents doesn't seem to have slowed the outpouring of donations from Americans who say they are enraged at the Trump administration for its handling of immigration issues. To date, Raices, which means "roots" in Spanish, has raised more than $20 million toward protecting immigrant rights.But it's taken a very public stand toward Salesforce's oddly timed donation of $250,000. The offer arrived at the NGO's doorstep shortly after Salesforce's employees appealed to Benioff to "reexamine" the company's stance on potentially aiding CBP and ICE with software that can be used for surveillance of immigrants. “We cannot cede responsibility for the use of the technology we create,” Salesforce employees wrote last June, “particularly when we have reason to believe that it is being used to aid practices so irreconcilable to our values.” For its part, Salesforce says it is not "working with CBP regarding the separation of families at the border," nor is it "aware of any Salesforce services being used for this purpose." According to a Facebook post by Raices, the nonprofit declined a $250,000 donation from the company last week. In an open letter to Salesforce, it said the company's cloud software is the "operational backbone of the agency and thus does support CBP in implementing its inhumane and immoral practices." The organization said it would accept the donation only if Salesforce "would commit to ending [its] contract with [CBP]," which Salesforce has since said it will not do. Tech companies are now faced with difficult, ethical decisions about what limits that should be imposed when it comes to using a cutting edge product with moral and ethical implications. Is it enough for companies to say they aren't "aware" when critics charge a product is being used inappropriately? Do they have a responsibility to know, and to set contractual limits to its use? The questions that lie ahead will no doubt be a test for today's tech companies that also strive to be stewards of corporate social responsibility. Image credits: Molly Adams (Flickr); Wes Schaeffer/Salesforce)
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.