When the bells of Saint Thomas cathedral tolled 5 pm on June 25, sweaty tourists nearby on Fifth Avenue, flocking in and out of glittery boutiques, were greeted by an unusual sight.
Protesters were gathered in front of Microsoft’s flagship store in Manhattan. Their rallying cry: “No tech for deportation.” The protest followed an open letter to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella signed the week before by 300 employees of the tech giant, demanding the company rescind its $19.4 million contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and contracts “with other clients who directly enable” the agency.
The central matter of the contention is Microsoft’s January “Azure Government Contract,” which reportedly provides facial recognition and cloud computing technology to ICE agents. The letter came as the Trump administration began garnering widespread condemnation last month for enforcing a “zero tolerance” policy along U.S. borders that has led to the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents. Due to the bipartisan uproar, President Trump abruptly interrupted the family separations on June 14th but officials are still struggling to reunite parents with their children.
“Microsoft has been positioning itself as an ethical leader in tech and we are calling on them to live up to that reputation,” said Colleen Baublitz, an environmental science Ph.D. student at Columbia University and member of Science for the People, which organized the June 25 protest. “We condemn these inhumane uses of technology at the U.S. border. Many Microsoft workers support our action as it amplifies their demands.”
The protest — the first of multiple rallies Science for the People has held at Microsoft stores in various U.S. cities recently — gathered a diverse crowd of passersby, activists and tech workers. While circulating flyers and starring in countless tourist photographs, some demonstrators entered the store and turned the screens of the computers on display to media websites carrying news of the Microsoft petition.
As outrage over the company’s ICE contract grew, Microsoft scrubbed a January blog post from one of its executives, Tom Keane, in which he boasted that ICE is “currently implementing transformative technologies for homeland security and public safety, and we’re proud to support this work with our mission-critical cloud.”
For his part Nadella, downplayed the company’s involvement with ICE, writing in a June 19 public email to his employees that it was merely helping the agency with “legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads.”
“I don’t know what the truth is,” said Zach Zill of Science for the People. “If they mentioned facial recognition, either they were lying back then, or they are lying now. Our whole point in being here is that the situation at the border is not just a ‘run of the mill’ situation. This is a horrific violation of human rights and Microsoft should not be complicit with that.”
In the same email, Nadella declared that he too was “appalled by the abhorrent policies of separating immigrant children from their families.”
He is one of many leading tech industry figures outpacing themselves in expressing righteous disapproval at the treatment of migrants by ICE. Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted against the “gut-wrenching” scenes from the U.S. border. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos called the family separations “immoral.” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg donated $80,000 to organizations working to reunite parents with their children.
These very same companies, however, have come under scrutiny for ethical affronts of their own: Google over its artificial intelligence contract with the Pentagon, which it has pledged to end next year; Amazon for its surveillance program “Rekogniton”; and Facebook over its collection and dissemination of intimate user data. Despite Nadella’s strong words against ICE, he has not, as of yet, backed out of his contract with the agency.
“Democratizing science and technology is critically necessary,” said Zill. “Just as with Microsoft, what we are seeing right now is that when scientific knowledge and research is concentrated in the hands of big corporations or powerful governments, it is abused rather than used to advance human rights and make people’s lives better.”
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Photo credit: @sftporg/Twitter.