September 30, 2022

Google and Amazon Seek Defense Contracts, Despite Worker Protests


The demonstrations retread familiar territory for Google, after thousands of workers signed a letter in 2018 condemning a Pentagon drone surveillance contract, Project Maven. Dozens of employees resigned over the deal, which also prompted outcry from academics, including Google cofounder Larry Page’s former Stanford adviser. The company eventually said it would not seek to renew the contract and published a set of AI principles meant to serve as ethical guideposts.

Some Google employees who oppose Project Nimbus say it breaches some of those promises, which include a pledge to not pursue technologies that “gather or use information for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms” or breach “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Israel routinely abuses Palestinian human rights, and call Israel an apartheid state.

Aniran Chandravongsri joined Google’s cloud division as a Seattle-based software engineer during the height of the Maven protests in May 2018. Having previously worked at General Electric, a major Pentagon contractor, he says seeing the outcry “was a reason I felt a little bit more comfortable joining Google.” Over the years, he has signed petitions protesting the company’s work with police departments and US Customs and Border Patrol, but he decided to take a leadership role in the pushback against Project Nimbus.

Chandravongsri’s parents were born in Laos, where he still has extended family. He has seen first-hand how CIA-led bombing campaigns during the 1960s and 1970s left a deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance that still threatens lives today, a problem seen in many war zones, including Gaza. He says reading the AI capabilities included in Project Nimbus “really scared me.”

Chandravongsri is far from the only worker in Google’s vast, international workforce whose background provides a perspective on the Pentagon and its military allies different from that of many US employees and executives. “There are a lot of places that Google workers are from that have been at the wrong end of US policy,” says Chandravongsri. “There are also a lot of Palestinian employees. They fear speaking out a lot.”

After Google retreated from Maven, it continued its relationship with the Pentagon, albeit largely through lower-profile projects like anti-corrosion technology for Naval vessels and cloud security for the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit. The announcement of Project Nimbus in 2021, and Google’s bid for the Pentagon’s $9 billion flagship cloud project, the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability, has some workers worried the company will significantly expand its military work.

Alphabet Workers Union, which has more than 1,000 members across Google’s parent company but no collective bargaining rights, went public in January 2021 and has since its early days had a working group devoted to scrutinizing military work at Google. Chandravongsri is a member of the group, which has pressured management about the JWCC and Project Nimbus.

Last November, a question about the JWCC’s compatibility with Google’s AI principles received enough upvotes on an internal Q&A tool called Dory to get read out during a companywide all-hands meeting. According to a report by CNBC, Google Cloud head Thomas Kurian responded that the company’s technology could be used for pieces of the contract that didn’t violate its AI principles. He later published a blog post outlining some of these potential uses. Chandravongsri was not satisfied with the response, saying Kurian’s claims clashed with the military language of the US government’s bid solicitation, which talked of the need to take on China.

Workers had less luck getting their questions about Project Nimbus asked at companywide meetings or the Weather Report, the Cloud team’s all-hands—prompting employees to take their concerns public. Ariel Koren, a Jewish marketing manager and outspoken opponent of Project Nimbus, resigned last week, saying she was pressured by managers, an allegation Google has denied. Koren also says she met pushback from other Jewish employees, who are supportive of Israel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.