Technology

Tech talent balks at government work

Workers at Silicon Valley's biggest tech companies are increasingly questioning their employers on the ethics of their work, in some cases leaving jobs and publicly rejecting recruiting offers to make a stand.

The pushback comes as tech companies have expanded into controversial projects, taking big-dollar contracts to provide services to the government and military. That work touches on a range of contentious issues from surveillance, intelligence and data collection to military weaponry.

The highly public protests are raising worries that the industry's business dealings with government could make it harder to recruit and keep top talent.

In one high-profile example, Matt Meshulam, a software engineer based in Chicago, received an email from an Amazon recruiter in August. But instead of setting up a time to speak, he sent back a quick note explaining why he had no interest in working at the tech behemoth.

"I am not willing to consider opportunities with Amazon as long as it sells facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies, and enables ICE's separation of immigrant families by providing technology to Palantir," he wrote, referring to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Meshulam even shared parts of his letter on Twitter.

Meshulam is one of a number of engineers who have publicly turned down recruiters from high-profile tech companies under the hashtag #TechWontBuildIt.

Their reasons range from corporate efforts to thwart unionization, such as Tesla, to concerns over Facebook's data privacy practices.

But a large majority are in opposition to the industry's government contracts, in particular with U.S. intelligence, law enforcement and the military.

Technology companies built their brands on popular and widely known products, such as Google's search, Amazon's online bookstore and Microsoft's software. Jobs at high-profile tech companies have long attracted engineers with elite credentials. And that is still largely true, with the tech industry still pulling in talented workers.

Now though, more and more of those workers are pressing for greater transparency from industry leaders over their work and its end products and for greater input into the projects companies take on.

The #TechWontBuildIt hashtag is just the latest public salvo in the intensifying fight between tech giants and their workforce over ethical questions.

Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Salesforce have each faced internal blowback from rank-and-file employees. In the case of Salesforce and Microsoft, employees questioned contracts with law enforcement including ICE, particularly during the controversy over family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In Google's case, workers have objected to its work with the Pentagon to use artificial intelligence to improve drones. Amazon has faced heated criticism from workers over its sales of facial recognition technology to local law enforcement.

Hundreds of employees at each firm have signed internal petitions asking that company leaders drop the government contracts and not pursue future ones, and in Google's case, thousands of employees have rallied behind that cause.

That government work is already causing some employees to walk. The exact number is unclear, but several Google employees have left the company in response to its Project Maven drone work.

Another Google senior scientist quit over the company's Project Dragonfly, a new search engine that was being created to comply with China's strict censorship laws. At least one senior member of a team that was assigned to work on Dragonfly asked to be transferred out of the team, adding that they could not quit outright because of the limited job options in their country, according to an internal Google posting reviewed by The Hill.

And the protests have hit campuses that are part of the important pipeline for Silicon Valley workers. Students at Stanford and MIT, two schools at which the tech industry recruits heavily, signed a pledge earlier this year saying that they would not work for companies taking on military or intelligence work.

"We are students opposed to the weaponization of technology by companies like Google and Microsoft," the pledge stated. "Our dream is to be a positive force in the world. We refuse to be complicit in this gross misuse of power."

The protests are a marked change from the Obama years, when Silicon Valley and the government appeared to be much closer. At that time, many tech workers saw the government's work to be on the cutting edge of many issues.

So far, the current efforts to push back on tech's government contracts have had mixed success.

Google said it would stop working with the Pentagon on military drone technology when its contract ends in 2019. It also withdrew bidding on a cloud computing contract. But the company is still pushing forward on its Chinese search engine.

Even though the pressure efforts aren't always successful, tech watchers say that qualified senior Silicon Valley engineers are often in short supply, giving them more power than workers in other fields to raise questions about the work they are doing.

Tech executives have acknowledged the protests, even while some have been reluctant to drop their government work.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that his company would not drop its contract with ICE, and his company is pursuing a cloud computing contract with the Pentagon over employee objections.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said recently during a conference that companies should keep working with the government. His company has continued to try to sell law enforcement facial recognition software and continues to compete for contracts with the federal government. 

"It doesn't make any sense to me," Bezos said of companies walking away from the government.

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