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September 7, 2022updated 08 Sep 2022 3:46am

Don’t be evil? Why Google can’t quit the military industrial complex

Ex-Googlers and experts say the company is unlikely to stop working with defence ministries and security agencies.

By Afiq Fitri

Ariel Koren was proud to be an activist in her workplace. A marketing manager in Google’s educational arm, Koren had been vocal in her opposition to Project Nimbus, a $1.2bn cloud services contract the tech giant had with the Israeli government. For more than a year she had buttonholed senior management and attempted to raise awareness in the media in order to stop the work. Then, in November 2021, Google asked Koren to move to Brazil.

Public resignations over Google’s work with the Israeli government have focused the world’s attention on the company’s military projects once more. (Photo by Getty Images/M.Torres)

Arguing that the decision was unjustified – why, she asked, would the São Paulo office require a new member of staff when they were all working from home – Koren complained to Google, and then to the US National Labor Relations Board. After both found no evidence of discrimination, she decided to resign. “I am leaving Google this week due to retaliation & hostility against workers who speak out,” Ariel Koren claimed in a tweet last Tuesday. “Google moved my role overseas immediately after I opposed its $1B AI/surveillance contracts with Israel. And this is far from an isolated instance.” 

The facts of Koren’s departure from Google are disputed by her former employers, who insisted in a statement to Tech Monitor that company policy did not permit such retaliation against individual members of staff. Nevertheless, the furore surrounding her resignation exposes serious divisions among Google’s workforce around the company’s ongoing efforts to win military and security contracts – business that many inside the tech giant feel directly contradicts its founding maxim to do no evil. 

Googlers continue to reject military and surveillance projects

Project Nimbus was signed by Google, Amazon and the Israeli government in May 2021 amid severe clashes between Israeli security forces and Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza. “Details are intentionally scarce, but we know Google will help construct data centres and provide cloud infrastructure to several Israeli government agencies, including Israel’s military and the Israel Land Authority,” Koren claims, referring to an agency accused of requisitioning Palestinian land for illegal settlements in the West Bank. “What’s worse, the contract explicitly prevents Google from shutting down its services in the future, including in the event of employee protest.” 

Training documents for Project Nimbus provided to The Intercept provide a rare insight into how Google’s technologies can be applied in real-world conflict zones. The documents mention how the firm’s Cloud Vision API claims to detect faces and facial landmarks, and even claims to read emotions (though such capabilities remain, at best, unproven.) “It’s clear that the tools provided through Nimbus have the potential to expand Israel’s pattern of surveillance, racial profiling, and other forms of tech-assisted human rights violations,” argues Koren. 

This is not the first time Google has faced an internal rebellion over its work with defence ministries and security agencies. In 2018, thousands of Google employees called on the company to stop a drone surveillance contract with the Pentagon named Project Maven. A coalition of concerned employees was also instrumental in putting the brakes on Project Dragonfly, a censored search engine that Google was building for the Chinese government. These precedents of successful organising provide hope for current employees. “Part of the reason that there has been so much sustained protest within Google is that there were wins in the past,” says Jack Poulson, an ex-Googler and founder of Tech Inquiry

This time might be different, as Google now appears to be unwilling to bow to internal pressure. “We are proud that Google Cloud has been selected by the Israeli government to provide public cloud services to help digitally transform the country,” a Google spokesperson told Tech Monitor. “The project includes making [the] Google Cloud Platform available to government agencies for everyday workloads such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education, but it is not directed to highly sensitive or classified workloads.” 

Google’s military interests

The booming market for public sector cloud computing and the intense competition over such lucrative contracts might also be another reason why Google is aggressively pursuing work with militaries and security agencies to store and help analyse their data. At the end of the second quarter for this year, Google remained a distant third in terms of revenues for its cloud computing business compared to Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure. But there are clear signs that Google is intent on closing the gap with its competitors by ramping its investments in public sector cloud computing

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“Given the extraordinary resources allocated to the US Department of Defense, the logics of market expansion push Google and other tech companies into that arena,” says Lucy Suchman, professor of anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University. “It would take an uncompromising, committed stance on the part of Google management to stay out of military contracting.” 

She adds that Google is unlikely to stop pursuing contracts with militaries and intelligence agencies and that such work would be buried within its new, “euphemistically named” Public Sector Division. “But to claim that these operations are not part of a larger war-fighting machinery, or that technologies developed for other DoD data-driven operations aren’t also aimed at warfighting, is disingenuous,” says Suchman. “At least the burden of proof would lie with Google for ensuring that their infrastructural technologies don’t migrate into weapon systems - and I suspect that’s not a commitment they’re willing to take on.” 

Other experts like Jeff Nesbit, a former director of public affairs for the US National Science Foundation, agree that Google will continue courting militaries and intelligence agencies under the guise of public sector work. “This has been a trend for a while, with tech companies hoping to build walls between different sectors within their business,” he says. “These big companies recognise that the public don’t seem to be all that concerned about the mass surveillance state, so if they’re going to be able to make billions on public contracts, they’re going to do it and hope nobody really notices.” 

But Nesbit also believes that employee activism at Google and other Big Tech companies is unlikely to fade away any time soon — partly because workers in such companies have bought into their bosses’ messianic visions of changing the world. “The CEOs of tech companies in the 21st century have to deal with ethical, societal and political questions, so they have a much more difficult job compared to 25 years ago,” he says. “There is only one Google, and so its employees are trying to shape the direction in which the company moves and I don’t think that trend is going away any time soon.”

More employee unrest and negative headlines scrutinising the company’s secretive work with the defence industry may well be on the horizon for Google. More than 700 Googlers, after all, signed the petition protesting the company’s involvement in Project Nimbus. Koren believes that her former colleagues will continue organising and speaking out against what they believe to be unethical work. 

“Google's intent was to oust me in order to scare more workers into silence, but the opposite has happened,” she claims. “Workers are fed up with Google's aggressive pursuit of military contracts and pattern of unlawful retaliation. Workers are fighting back; we have each other's backs.”

Capital Monitor is hosting the second part of its Webinar series, Making Sense of Net Zero, alongside New Statesman and Tech Monitor on September 21. Find out more information on NSMG.live.

Read more: Is the cloud computing market anti-competitive?

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