Microsoft, ICE, and the Trouble With Technology Being 'Neutral' | Tech News
When you look for words to describe IBM, you think solid and staid, but it’s also stained. During WWII, under the direction of its chairman and CEO Thomas Watson, IBM assisted in mechanising the administrative work of the Third Reich.
The company’s German subsidiary, with the cooperation and coordination of the parent company, set up concentration camps with leased card-sorting machines that it maintained, customized applications for, and provided with paper to keep them in punch cards. The information churned out by those Hollerith machines played a part in putting Jews behind the razor-wire fencing that millions would not escape.
Today, thousands of children of immigrants and asylum seekers are in their own chain-link cages in US detention centers, barcodes wrapped around their wrists. Companies behind the technology that keeps track of them—or doesn’t—are not eager to boast about that fact.
In January, Microsoft talked up its partnership with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which uses Redmond’s Azure Government cloud service. The post re-emerged this week amidst the uproar over the government’s child-separation policy at the border, and for a brief time, any mention of ICE was scrubbed from it. Sources with knowledge of the issue told PCMag that an employee deleted it after seeing commentary in social media; it was restored shortly thereafter.
The source also said they do not believe Azure or Azure services are being used in the separation of families at the southern border, something CEO Satya Nadella echoed in a letter condemning the administration’s policy of separating families. He said Azure is only used by ICE for legacy mail, calendar, messaging, and document-management workloads.
But really, he can’t be sure exactly how the agency uses its services. Some Microsoft employees apparently agree; they wrote an open letter asking the company to end its contract with ICE. Developers on GitHub, which Microsoft recently acquired, did the same.
This is where technology companies need to make decisions on moral grounds; do they want to do business with government entities engaged in work the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has called unconscionable?
While it’s had a lower profile, Vigilant Solutions signed a contract with ICE for its license-plate-recognition (LPR) program, which is used to find and track people in real time. “Our LPR solution isn’t just for finding stolen vehicles. It’s for that and much more,” the company’s site says.
Vigilant Solutions did not respond to an inquiry about its work with ICE. And it’s not the only company remaining tight-lipped about image-recognition technology being used by law-enforcement and government agencies.
Amazon’s Rekognition uses deep learning to detect inanimate objects, people, and activities. When asked about legal but perhaps societally questionable uses should ICE become a customer, an Amazon spokesperson acknowledge the potential for abuse, but said Rekognition is subject to the Amazon Web Services Acceptable Use Policy.
A reading of the policy comes up short in ways that would stop objectionable behavior. The most relevant section would ban “Any activities that are illegal, that violate the rights of others, or that may be harmful to others, our operations or reputation.”
Rekognition is not in use by ICE, but it is used by several police departments, something that worries some Amazon shareholders, who have asked the company to stop selling Rekognition to law enforcement.
NBC News uncovered a raft of tech companies that have contracts with ICE, including HP Enterprise, Dell, and Motorola. One company that is assisting ICE should be of no surprise: Palantir. It has a $41 billion deal for ICE’s Investigative Case Management product, which is “mission-critical” to the agency, according to documents obtained by The Intercept.
Palantir’s co-founder and chairman Peter Thiel has been a steady supporter of Donald Trump since his campaign. Thiel himself has not spoken about the situation at the border, but in 2008, he made a $1 million donation to anti-immigrant group NumbersUSA, which is dedicated to reducing both legal and illegal immigration. Thiel apparently sees no irony in his becoming a New Zealand citizen by bypassing the usual process.
Government contracts are reliably lucrative, but profiting from activities that are so similar to those that have led to some of the worst atrocities in history comes at too high a price. Just ask Google, which has been grappling with objections to its work with the Pentagon on a controversial drone program. The social capital Silicon Valley has gained over the years and its capabilities and skills should be put to eradicating the horrors of our past for a better future.