Microsoft employees protest US Army contract

Microsoft employees protest US Army contract
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A group of more than 50 Microsoft employees have signed on to a letter protesting the company's $479 million technology contract with the U.S. Army, saying Microsoft is providing the military with tools "designed to help people kill."

The Microsoft workers released a letter on Friday addressed to CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith condemning the company's plan to equip the U.S. military with up to 100,000 augmented reality headsets, provided as part of an Army program explicitly intended for soldiers to use during combat as well as training.

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The headset technology, called HoloLens, will be used to "increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy," according to a Department of Defense (DOD) description of the augmented reality program.

The company won the contract with the U.S. Army in November.

"We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers and we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression," the letter from employees reads. "We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the U.S. military, helping one country's government 'increase lethality' using tools we built."

"We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used," the workers wrote.

"We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard,” a Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement Friday in response to the letter. “In fact, we heard from many employees throughout the fall. As we said then, we’re committed to providing our technology to the U.S. Department of Defense, which includes the U.S. Army under this contract.”

"As we’ve also said, we’ll remain engaged as an active corporate citizen in addressing the important ethical and public policy issues relating to AI and the military,” the spokesperson added.

The U.S. Army has reportedly used HoloLens devices during training, Bloomberg News reported, but the current program's call for augmented reality to use during combat represents a significant shift.

The Microsoft workers are calling for the company to cancel the contract through the Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) program, end the development of "any and all weapons technologies," draft a public document laying out its policies on weapons technology development, and appoint an external board to assess Microsoft's compliance with those standards.

"While the company has previously licensed tech to the U.S. Military, it has never crossed the line into weapons development," the Microsoft workers wrote in the letter Friday. "With this contract, it does."

"The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill," they wrote. "It will be deployed on the battlefield, and works by turning warfare into a simulated 'video game,' further distancing soldiers from the grim stakes of war and the reality of bloodshed."

Microsoft workers have pushed back against the company's bids on U.S. military projects in the past. Last year, a group of Microsoft employees urged the company to retract its bid on a $10 billion project to build cloud services for the DOD and protested the company's work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Tech workers have increasingly spoken out against their companies' ties to law enforcement and defense bodies, seeking to provide an ethical check on tech giants including Apple, Google and Microsoft.

Google walked away from a contract with the Pentagon’s Project Maven in June amid a firestorm of internal dissent from workers who said the company was enabling lethal technologies.

Smith, Microsoft's CEO, defended the company's ties to the military in October, writing in a blog post, "We want the people of this country and especially the people who serve this country to know that we at Microsoft have their backs."

"We've worked with the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) on a longstanding and reliable basis for four decades," Smith wrote. "You’ll find Microsoft technology throughout the American military, helping power its front office, field operations, bases, ships, aircraft and training facilities. We are proud of this relationship."

Smith suggested that employees concerned about the ethics of the projects they were working on could move to other work within the company.

"Brad Smith's suggestion ... ignores the problem that workers are not properly informed of the use of their work," the group of Microsoft employees wrote in the letter Friday. 

"As employees and shareholders, we do not want to become war profiteers," the workers wrote. "To that end, we believe that Microsoft must stop in its activities to empower the U.S. Army's ability to cause harm and violence." 

Updated: 8:34 p.m.