They said the company intended to apply its HoloLens augmented reality technology for providing the army with a tool for night vision, thermal sensing, and monitoring of vital signs, and pointed out that though technology had been supplied to US military in the past, Microsoft had "never crossed the line into weapons development".
"...we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression. We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the U.S. Military, helping one country's government 'increase lethality' using tools we built. We did not sign up to develop
weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used," the employees said.
This is not the first time that employees of Microsoft have protested against what they see as unethical use of the company's software. Last June, some employees protested against the company's working with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement in the wake of the agency's separation of migrant children from their parents at the Mexico-US border.
In the current letter, the employees have demanded a cancellation of the IVAS contract, the cessation of development of all weapons technologies, and creation of a public-facing acceptable use policy clarifying this commitment and the appointment of an independent, external ethics review board which can enforce and publicly validate compliance with the acceptable use policy.
The employees said Smith's suggestion "that employees concerned about working on unethical projects 'would be allowed to move to other work within the company' ignores the problem that workers are not properly informed of the use of their work.
"There are many engineers who contributed to HoloLens before this contract even existed, believing it would be used to help architects and engineers build buildings and cars, to help teach people how to perform surgery or play the piano, to push the boundaries of gaming, and to connect with the Mars Rover.
"These engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on, instead finding themselves implicated as war profiteers."
Last year, a dozen Google employees quit the company to protest against its involvement in a Pentagon initiative named Project Maven where Google's AI technology was being used to improve targeting by drones.
In response, Google said it would not renew the contract to work on Maven, but gave no assurance that it would keep out of similar projects in future. The search giant later pulled out of bidding to participate in a big Defence Department deal worth US$10 billion.
The Microsoft employees said the company's mission "is to empower every person and organisation on the planet to do more. But implicit in that statement, we believe it is also Microsoft's mission to empower every person and organisation on the planet to do good".
"We also need to be mindful of who we're empowering and what we're empowering them to do. Extending this core mission to encompass warfare and disempower Microsoft employees, is disingenuous, as 'every person' also means empowering us.
"As employees and shareholders we do not want to become war profiteers. To that end, we believe that Microsoft must stop in its activities to empower the US Army's ability to cause harm and violence."