Why Microsoft employees want to reject this Army contract
A group of Microsoft employees are demanding that the company's leadership abandon a contract with the US Army that they say makes them into "war profiteers" — a contract that relates to Microsoft's HoloLens augmented-reality technology.
On Feb. 22, 2019, a group of workers at the Redmond, Washington-based tech giant released an open letter in which they slammed a $749 million contract the company holds to develop an "Integrated Visual Augmentation System" (IVAS) to build "a single platform that Soldiers can use to Fight, Rehearse, and Train that provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries."
"We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used," the letter reads. "As employees and shareholders we do not want to become war profiteers. 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."
Fifty employees have signed the letter so far, and organizers say that number is expected to grow.
The organized action comes just days before Microsoft is widely expected to unveil a new HoloLens headset at the Mobile World Congress technology conference in Europe and is a sign of the rising tide of labor activism in the American technology industry.
(Flickr photo by Franklin Heijnen)
"We are going public with the demand to cancel the Hololens DoD contract because we want our voices to be heard on this life or death matter," a Microsoft worker who asked to remain anonymous told Business Insider. "We haven't heard back from Microsoft officially, or from any execs at this point — we're hoping this open letter will help get us a response."
Microsoft employees have also protested company bids for other military contracts before. And multiple other tech companies have also been roiled by protests over military applications of their technology over the last year.
In June 2018, Google canceled a US military contract after internal uproar. Amazon has also faced protests over military contracts, though CEO Jeff Bezos has said the company has no plans to end them — even implicitly rebuking Google for its actions as unpatriotic. "If big tech companies are going to turn their back on the US Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble," Bezos said in October 2018.
The same anonymous Microsoft worker challenged this argument, saying: "Jeff Bezos and other tech execs reap massive profits from military contracts. Patriotism is just a front. If we look at who benefits, it is certainly not the individual engineers working at these companies."
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
In a statement, Microsoft spokesperson Liz Reisen said: "We gave this issue careful consideration and outlined our perspective in an October 2018 blog. We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard. 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."
Here's the full letter:
"Dear Satya Nadella and Brad Smith,
"We are a global coalition of Microsoft workers, and we refuse to create technology for warfare and oppression. 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.
"In November, Microsoft was awarded the 9 million Integrated Visual Augmentation System (IVAS) contract with the United States Department of the Army. The contract's stated objective is to 'rapidly develop, test, and manufacture a single platform that Soldiers can use to Fight, Rehearse, and Train that provides increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness necessary to achieve overmatch against our current and future adversaries.' Microsoft intends to apply its HoloLens augmented reality technology to this purpose. While the company has previously licensed tech to the U.S. Military, it has never crossed the line into weapons development. With this contract, it does. The application of HoloLens within the IVAS system is designed to help people kill. 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.
"Intent to harm is not an acceptable use of our technology.
"We demand that Microsoft:
"1) Cancel the IVAS contract;
"2) Cease developing any and all weapons technologies, and draft a public-facing acceptable use policy clarifying this commitment;
"3) Appoint an independent, external ethics review board with the power to enforce and publicly validate compliance with its acceptable use policy.
"Although a review process exists for ethics in AI, AETHER, it is opaque to Microsoft workers, and clearly not robust enough to prevent weapons development, as the IVAS contract demonstrates. Without such a policy, Microsoft fails to inform its engineers on the intent of the software they are building. Such a policy would also enable workers and the public to hold Microsoft accountable.
"Brad Smith's suggestion that employees concerned about working on unethical projects 'would be allowed to move to other work within the company' ignores the problem that workers are not properly informed of the use of their work. There are many engineers who contributed to HoloLens before this contract even existed, believing it would be used to help architects and engineers build buildings and cars, to help teach people how to perform surgery or play the piano, to push the boundaries of gaming, and to connect with the Mars Rover (RIP). These engineers have now lost their ability to make decisions about what they work on, instead finding themselves implicated as war profiteers.
"Microsoft's guidelines on accessibility and security go above and beyond because we care about our customers. We ask for the same approach to a policy on ethics and acceptable use of our technology. Making our products accessible to all audiences has required us to be proactive and unwavering about inclusion. If we don't make the same commitment to be ethical, we won't be. We must design against abuse and the potential to cause violence and harm.
"Microsoft's mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to do more. But implicit in that statement, we believe it is also Microsoft's mission to empower every person and organization on the planet to do good. We also need to be mindful of who we're empowering and what we're empowering them to do. Extending this core mission to encompass warfare and disempower Microsoft employees, is disingenuous, as 'every person' also means empowering us. As employees and shareholders we do not want to become war profiteers. 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.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.