February 22, 2019
By Paresh Dave
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – Several Microsoft Corp employees on Friday demanded that the company cancel a $480 million hardware contract with the U.S. Army and stop developing “any and all weapons technologies.”
The organizing effort, described to Reuters by three Microsoft workers, offers the latest example in the last year of tech employees protesting cooperation with governments on emerging technologies.
Microsoft won a contract in November to supply the Army with at least 2,500 prototypes of augmented reality headsets, which digitally displays contextual information in front of a user’s eyes. The government has said the devices would be used on the battlefield and in training to improve soldiers “lethality, mobility and situational awareness.”
In a petition to Microsoft executives, posted on Twitter, workers said they “did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.” They called on the company to develop “a public-facing acceptable use policy” for its technology and an external review board to publicly enforce it.
Microsoft and the U.S. Army did not immediately respond to requests to comment. Company President Brad Smith said in an October blog post it remained committed to assisting the military.
“We’ll engage not only actively but proactively across the U.S. government to advocate for policies and laws that will ensure that AI and other new technologies are used responsibly and ethically,” Smith wrote.
Though many governments want to better draw upon the expertise of the biggest U.S. tech companies, fresh employee resistance has added a new challenge to already complicated relationships.
Worker pushback led Alphabet Inc last year to announce it would not renew a Pentagon contract in which its artificial intelligence technology is used to analyze drone imagery.
In other cases, employee criticism has invited greater public scrutiny to deals, such as $10 billion cloud computing contract yet to be awarded and various contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
One Microsoft worker, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unclear whether any of the lead petitioners’ work touches the Army contract because the company’s services are intertwined. Another said several organizers work in the company’s cloud computing division, which is competing with rivals Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services to gain more government work.
(Reporting by Paresh Dave; Editing by Richard Chang)