Microsoft staff members are calling on CEO Satya Nadella to terminate the company’s contract with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). In an open letter published by The New York Times, employees say that they “refuse to be complicit” in ICE’s policy of breaking apart migrant families that come to the US without legal documentation.
Since May, the agency has been systematically separating children from their parents, and the kids have been housed in former warehouses and camps around the country. Microsoft’s involvement comes from the company’s Azure Government cloud computing platform: a segregated set of government-only data centers and cloud services operated exclusively by US citizens, with certifications and approval to fulfill certain government needs. In January, the company announced in a blog post that it was proud to support ICE’s “IT modernization” using Azure Government. This language was briefly removed “by mistake” from the blog post but has subsequently been reinstated.
In the view of the open letter’s signatories—and no small number of Microsoft employees on Twitter and the company’s internal social media—this cooperation is unacceptable, and the company should take an “ethical stand, and put children and families above profits.” They’re calling on the company to cancel its contract with ICE (claimed to be worth $ 19.4 million), create a public policy that neither Microsoft nor its contractors will work with clients violating international human rights law, and show greater transparency over contracts with government agencies.
In an internal email subsequently published on LinkedIn, Satya Nadella described the child separation policy as “cruel and abusive” and asserted that the company is “not working with the US government on any projects related to separating children from their families.” ICE’s use of the company’s services is limited to “legacy mail, calendar, messaging, and document management workloads.”
Company President Brad Smith also called on Congress to pass legislation to forcibly put an end to the Trump administration’s policy of separating children from their families.
It’s not immediately clear how Nadella is so certain that these mail, messaging, and document management workloads are wholly unrelated to the child-separation policy. Moreover, when announcing that ICE had authorized the use of Azure Government, Microsoft expressed the possibility that ICE would use Azure’s “deep learning” and “facial recognition and identification” facilities—two services that go far beyond the kind of paperwork and communication that Nadella described. ICE may not be doing these things right now, but there appears to be no policy preventing it in the future.
Government use of Google’s similar machine learning services caused a backlash from more than 4,000 Google employees. In response, the company promised not to renew an image-recognition contract with the Department of Defense and said that it would produce an “AI ethics plan” to guide similar contracts in the future.