Sunday, 24 February 2019 05:26

Microsoft workers demand company cancel US$479m military deal Featured

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Microsoft workers demand company cancel US$479m military deal Pixabay

Microsoft employees have written to the company's chief executive Satya Nadella and president Brad Smith demanding that they cancel a $479 million deal with the US Army for an Integrated Visual Augmentation System.

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."

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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