|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [Hangout - NYLXS] rebeling against Digital Survalence
I Used to Work for Google. I Am a Conscientious Objector.
American companies continue to build surveillance tools that are used to
violate human rights. Workers who refuse to comply deserve protections.
By Jack Poulson
Mr. Poulson is a former research scientist at Google.
April 23, 2019
“We can forgive your politics and focus on your technical contributions
as long as you don’t do something unforgivable, like speaking to the press.”
This was the parting advice given to me during my exit interview from
Google after spending a month internally arguing, resignation letter in
hand, for the company to clarify its ethical red lines around Project
Dragonfly, the effort to modify Search to meet the censorship and
surveillance demands of the Chinese Communist Party.
When a prototype circulated internally of a system that would ostensibly
allow the Chinese government to surveil Chinese users’ queries by their
phone numbers, Google executives argued that it was within existing
norms. Governments, after all, make law enforcement demands of the
company all the time. Where, they asked their employees, was the
But the time has passed when tech companies can simply build tools,
write algorithms and amass data without regard to who uses the
technology and for what purpose.
Complaints from a single rank-and-file engineer aren’t going to lead a
company to act against its significant financial interests. But history
shows that dissenters — aided by courts or the court of public opinion —
can sometimes make a difference. Even if that difference is just
alerting the public to what these companies are up to.
Nearly a decade ago, Cisco Systems was sued in federal court on behalf
of 11 members of the Falun Gong organization, who claimed that the
company built a nationwide video surveillance and “forced conversion”
profiling system for the Chinese government that was tailored to help
Beijing crack down on the group. According to Cisco’s own marketing
materials, the video analyzer — which would now be marketed as
artificial intelligence — was the “only product capable of recognizing
over 90 percent of Falun Gong pictorial information.”
Despite the court’s acknowledgment that Cisco built “individual features
customized and designed specifically to find, track and suppress Falun
Gong,” several early rulings went against the plaintiffs. And the case
is still pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth
The failure to punish Cisco set a precedent for American companies to
build artificial intelligence for foreign governments to use for
political oppression. This year, an investigation by The Times found
that an American company, Thermo Fisher, sold DNA analyzers to aid in
the current large-scale domestic surveillance and internment of hundreds
of thousands of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, in the
region of Xinjiang. After the story broke, the company said it would no
longer sell equipment in Xinjiang.
The Company That Sells Love to America Had a Dark Secret
How Gay Are You?
A Giant Laid Low by Too Many Blows to the Head
[As technology advances, will it continue to blur the lines between
public and private? Sign up for Charlie Warzel’s limited-run newsletter
to explore what’s at stake and what you can do about it.]
Public shaming has a mixed track record. In October 2005, five years
before being awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo published an open
letter to Jerry Yang, the chairman of Yahoo at the time. It was in
response to Yahoo’s role in the arrest of the pro-democracy journalist
Shi Tao, who had anonymously posted instructions from the Chinese
Communist Party insisting that he not report on the 15th anniversary of
the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
Mr. Liu’s letter said that Yahoo “complied with China’s State Security
police by tracing Shi Tao’s internet activity and providing his email
account, IP address and other personal information to them. This
information became one of the most important pieces of evidence in the
conviction of Mr. Shi.” And he further implied that Yahoo’s recently
completed deal to purchase 40 percent of Alibaba, the e-commerce giant,
was a factor in the decision.
Mr. Liu couldn’t have possibly known that a decade later, Google’s
Dragonfly modifications of Search would censor information on his Nobel
Prize and reportedly tie Search queries to phone numbers.
Two years after Mr. Liu’s letter, while Shi Tao was serving a 10-year
sentence that would ultimately be reduced to eight and a half, Mr. Yang
appeared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The committee’s
chairman, Tom Lantos, berated Mr. Yang’s contention that Yahoo was
complying with ordinary law enforcement. “While technologically and
financially you are giants, morally you are pygmies,” Mr. Lantos said.
Mr. Yang defended Yahoo’s human rights commitments and emphasized the
importance of the Chinese market. Google used a similar defense for
Dragonfly last year. Despite negative press received by Google, direct
calls from Vice President Mike Pence to end the project and two
congressional interrogations of executives, the only major setback to
Project Dragonfly came from Google’s privacy team standing up to management.
Collective worker action has been a constant, if unappreciated, check on
questionable projects at Google. The trend arguably began when a group
of engineers (the “Group of Nine”) prevented the acceptance of an Air
Force contract by refusing to build “air gap” technology needed for
federal security requirements. This inspired the sustained, and
ultimately successful, internal effort to end Google’s work on applying
artificial intelligence to Pentagon drone footage for targeting
insurgents as part of Project Maven.
Sign Up for The Privacy Project Newsletter
As technology advances, will it continue to blur the lines between
public and private? Explore what's at stake and what you can do about it.
The internal turmoil led to the creation of Google’s A.I. Principles,
which committed the company to not “design or deploy” technologies that
violate “widely accepted principles of international law and human
rights.” The combination of Maven’s cancellation and the inability to
complete the required federal certifications led to Google’s withdrawal
from a $10 billion contract to build the Pentagon’s cloud computing
effort called Project JEDI.
The high-water mark of collective action at the company was on Nov. 1,
2018, when 20,000 Google workers collectively walked out of their
offices to demand improvements to Google’s policies on sexual
harassment. The event was a direct response to a New York Times exposé
on Google’s having given Andy Rubin, the “father of Android,” a $90
million payout despite having a verified sexual misconduct claim against
him. The action led to public concessions on forced arbitration, not
only from Google but across the tech industry.
In Maven and JEDI, internal organizing was a success. The A.I.
Principles were drafted and cited as the reason for the cancellations.
But even the collective action of key employees on Dragonfly has not led
to a public statement that the project would have violated Google’s
commitment to not design technologies violating human rights.
Direct action from tech workers has been undeniably effective. Human
rights organizations must therefore continue to advocate the legal
protection of whistle-blowers and conscientious objectors, including
protecting the organizing required for an effective collective action.
Further, the broader civil society could increase the frequency of
whistle-blowing by creating a dedicated legal defense fund.
Tech companies are spending record amounts on lobbying and quietly
fighting to limit employees’ legal protections for organizing. North
American legislators would be wise to answer the call from human rights
organizations and research institutions by guaranteeing explicit
whistle-blower protections similar to those recently passed by the
European Union. Ideally, they would vocally support an instrument that
legally binds businesses — via international human rights law — to
uphold human rights.
If it is morally defensible, tech companies should have nothing to fear
from discussions of the human rights implications of their work, whether
that discussion happens in the boardroom or public square.
Jack Poulson is the founder of Tech Inquiry. He was previously on the
mathematics faculty at Stanford.
Follow -at-privacyproject on Twitter and The New York Times Opinion Section
on Facebook and Instagram.
So many immigrant groups have swept through our town
that Brooklyn, like Atlantis, reaches mythological
proportions in the mind of the world - RI Safir 1998
DRM is THEFT - We are the STAKEHOLDERS - RI Safir 2002
http://www.nylxs.com - Leadership Development in Free Software
Being so tracked is for FARM ANIMALS and extermination camps,
but incompatible with living as a free human being. -RI Safir 2013
Hangout mailing list