Google made headlines last month when it was announced it was partnering with the Pentagon to develop artificial intelligence for use in drones flown over war zones.
The move divided the company, and this week, internal documentation of that conflict became available to the public in a petition signed by thousands of employees to the company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, urging him to withdraw from the Pentagon partnership.
The letter, published this week by The New York Times, opens:
We believe that Google should not be in the business of war. Therefore we ask that Project Maven be cancelled, and that Google draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.
The employees clarify the specific technology the company is providing:
Google is implementing Project Maven, a customized AI surveillance engine that uses ‘Wide Area Motion Imagery’ data captured by US Government drones to detect vehicles and other objects, track their motions, and provide results to the Department of Defense.
Google’s former executive chairman and current board member, Eric Schmidt, has insisted the technology will only be employed for non-combat situations. However, that has not eased the concerns of over 3,000 employees who signed the letter to Pichai.
“This plan will irreparably damage Google’s brand and its ability to compete for talent. Amid growing fears of biased and weaponized AI, Google is already struggling to keep the public’s trust,” they wrote, expressing concerns that the project will place Google among the likes of Raytheon, General Dynamics, and Palantir, notorious beneficiaries of the military-industrial complex.
They also reject the notion that the defense contract is legitimate because other tech companies may behave similarly:
The argument that other firms, like Microsoft and Amazon, are also participating doesn’t make this any less risky for Google. Google’s unique history, its motto Don’t Be Evil, and its direct reach into the lives of billions of users set it apart.
The dissenting employees further assert that this is a moral issue:
We cannot outsource the moral responsibility of our technologies to third parties. Google’s stated values make this clear: Every one of our users is trusting us. Never jeopardize that. Ever. This contract puts Google’s reputation at risk and stands in direct opposition to our core values. Building this technology to assist the US Government in military surveillance – and potentially lethal outcomes – is not acceptable.
In their conclusion — as with their introduction — they call on the company’s leadership to both withdraw from this contract and to vow that they will never participate in the development of warfare technology.
While the sentiment is admirable and drawing media attention, far less acknowledged is Google’s previous relationship with the government’s war agency.
In 2012, Google hired an employee from DARPA, the Pentagon’s technology and research arm. Wired reported at the time that while revolving-door-type relationship this seemed surprising because Google’s ties to the Pentagon were scant, it was actually just the latest development in Google’s “long and deeply complicated relationship with America’s military and intelligence communities.” Wired wrote:
‘Like Halliburton in the previous administration,’ warned the National Legal and Policy Center in 2010, ‘Google has an exceptionally close relationship with the current [Obama] administration’
Writing for the outlet, Noah Schachtman noted that while Google may not customize its software for the government, its products are linked to federal agencies all the same and that its State-sponsored technology was ultimately used in warfare:
Google also has its hand deep in government surveillance efforts. Wired continued:
During the first six months of 2011, U.S. government agencies sent Google 5,950 criminal investigation requests for data on Google users and services, as our sister blog Threat Level noted at the time. That’s an average of 31 a day, and Google said it complied with 93 percent of those requests.
It provided private user information to the NSA through the PRISM program, and as Quartz has explained, Google’s founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page were funded by military grants in the 1990s as the intelligence community attempted to bolster mass surveillance when the internet was in its early stages. Quartz reported:
The grants allowed Brin and Page to do their work and contributed to their breakthroughs in web-page ranking and tracking user queries. Brin didn’t work for the intelligence community—or for anyone else. Google had not yet been incorporated. He was just a Stanford researcher taking advantage of the grant provided by the NSA and CIA through the unclassified MDDS program [Massive Digital Data Systems, a project managed by military and intelligence contractors].
Google employees’ willingness to challenge the company’s leaders over their collaboration with the Pentagon is admirable, but as they stress the motto “Do No Evil,” it may be the case that Google strayed from this policy long before it inked its most recent Pentagon deal.