Technology

Microsoft employees with ethical concerns of military tech use can choose other projects

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If a Microsoft employee has ethical concerns over the US military use of technology, they can opt for different projects to work on, according to Microsoft president Brad Smith.

“Of course, no institution is perfect or has an unblemished track record.”

On Friday, Smith wrote on the Microsoft Blog that Microsoft has been working with the US Deptarment of Defense (DoD) for over four decades, and that it will continue to do so, highlighting its bid for the Pentagon’s $10 billion JEDI Cloud contract.

Read More: Pentagon tech is grossly flawed, AWS frontrunner in JEDI cloud procurement

The Microsoft president said that he met with CEO Satya Nadella and employees for a Q&A in which they discussed the ethical concerns employees in the tech community have raised when it comes to using technology for government purposes.

“We appreciate that technology is creating new ethical and policy issues that the country needs to address in a thoughtful and wise manner. That’s why it’s important that we engage as a company in the public dialogue on these issues,” wrote Smith.

The ethical issues that Smith writes about have been covered extensively on The Sociable. These issues deal with how Google allegedly covered-up a bug in its Google+ system from the public and government to the Immigration and Control Enforcement’s (ICE) use of Amazon’s Rekognition software for facial recognition and deportations, to Amazon hosting Palantir on AWS, and much, much more, including Elon Musk’s concerns that one day AI would level humans to the equivalent of house pets at best and irrelevant at worst.

Read More: ‘450 Amazon employees tell Bezos to kick Palantir off AWS’

Smith laid out three points addressing ethical concerns among Microsoft employees.

  1. “First, we believe in the strong defense of the United States and we want the people who defend it to have access to the nation’s best technology, including from Microsoft.”
  2. “Second, we appreciate the important new ethical and policy issues that artificial intelligence is creating for weapons and warfare. We want to use our knowledge and voice as a corporate citizen to address these in a responsible way through the country’s civic and democratic processes.”
  3. “Third, we understand that some of our employees may have different views. We don’t ask or expect everyone who works at Microsoft to support every position the company takes. We also respect the fact that some employees work in, or may be citizens of, other countries, and they may not want to work on certain projects. As is always the case, if our employees want to work on a different project or team – for whatever reason – we want them to know we support talent mobility.”

“But when it comes to the U.S. military, as a company, Microsoft will be engaged.”

While Microsoft gives its employees the options to work on other projects that fall more in line with their views, Microsoft will still continue to work with the DoD and the US military, as it has done for over 40 years.

As a tech company working with the US military, Microsoft sees itself as being transparent in its approach towards ethical use of technology.

“We’ll engage not only actively but proactively across the U.S. government to advocate for policies and laws that will ensure that AI and other new technologies are used responsibly and ethically. Already, we’re talking with experts to help inform us and address these issues,” wrote Smith.

In Microsoft’s view, “the military is controlled by civilian authorities, including the executive branch, the Congress and the courts,” and that “no tech company has been more active than Microsoft in addressing the public policy and legal issues raised by new technology, especially government surveillance and cyber weapons.”

With the recent uproar and subsequent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by the ACLU demanding that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) disclose how it uses Amazon’s Rekognition software, the Microsoft president laid out two points that are missing in the debate concerning how government uses technology:

  1. First, we believe that the people who defend our country need and deserve our support.
  2. Second, to withdraw from this market is to reduce our opportunity to engage in the public debate about how new technologies can best be used in a responsible way.

Read More: ACLU files FOIA request demanding DHS, ICE reveal how they use Amazon Rekognition

With a four decade history of providing tech to the military and a $10 billion bid for the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud contract on the line, Microsoft president Smith concluded:

“We are not going to withdraw from the future. In the most positive way possible, we are going to work to help shape it.”

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Tim Hinchliffe
Tim Hinchliffe is a veteran journalist whose passions include writing about how technology impacts society and Artificial Intelligence. He prefers writing in-depth, interesting features that people actually want to read. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Ghanaian Chronicle in West Africa, and Colombia Reports in South America. tim@sociable.co