Nearly 100 Microsoft employees signed a letter that was posted on the company’s internal messaging system demanding that their employer cancel a $19.4 million contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) over President Trump’s immigration policies.
The letter, addressed to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, called on the company to take an ethical stand, “putting children and families above profits,” and to demonstrate that commitment by canceling a massive contract for the Azure cloud computing platform.
According to a January blog post at Microsoft, the company received an Authority to Operate (ATO) designation for Azure Government to provide services for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“ICE’s decision to accelerate IT modernization using Azure Government will help them innovate faster while reducing the burden of legacy IT,” Microsoft wrote. “The agency is currently implementing transformative technologies for homeland security and public safety, and we’re proud to support this work with our mission-critical cloud.”
The signatories on the letter claim that ICE is a human rights violator.
“In a clear abdication of ethical responsibility, Microsoft went as far as boasting that its services ‘support the core [ICE] agency functions’ and enable ICE agents to ‘process data on edge devices’ and ‘utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification,'” the letter stated. “These are powerful capabilities, in the hands of an agency that has shown repeated willingness to enact inhumane and cruel policies.”
“We request that Microsoft cancel its contracts with ICE, and with other clients who directly enable ICE,” the employees said. “As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit. We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm.”
The letter, signed simply “Microsoft employees,” listed several demands:
1. Cancel the existing Azure Government contract with ICE immediately.
2. Draft, publicize, and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Microsoft nor its contractors will work with clients who violate international human rights law.
3. Commit to transparency and review regarding contracts between Microsoft and government agencies, in the US and beyond.
Microsoft responded to the charges in a blog post on Monday. “Microsoft is not working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Customs and Border Protection on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border, and contrary to some speculation, we are not aware of Azure or Azure services being used for this purpose,” the post declared. “As a company, Microsoft is dismayed by the forcible separation of children from their families at the border. Family unification has been a fundamental tenet of American policy and law since the end of World War II.”
The post went on to highlight Microsoft’s 20-year history of using technology to “ensure that children who are refugees and immigrants can remain with their parents.” The post urged the administration to change its policy of separating children from their parents and called on Congress to pass legislation that would prohibit the practice.
Microsoft isn’t alone in facing employee backlash over government contracts during the Trump era. The Silicon Valley tech industry has been at the forefront of the #Resist movement. The New York Times reports:
The outcry from Microsoft’s rank-and-file is the latest in a series of well-founded objections by tech workers against the tools they help to build falling into the hands of law enforcement and government agencies. After Google’s collaboration with the Pentagon was made public by Gizmodo, Google employees raised alerts internally, culminating in a similar letter being sent to leadership. Shortly after Trump’s election, tech workers across multiple companies signed the “Never Again” pledge to refuse collaboration on tools that “target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.”
Three things to consider:
- First, as far as I can tell, Microsoft isn’t forcing anyone to be “complicit” with ICE policies. They’re free to seek employment elsewhere if they can’t handle the emotional strain of working for a government contractor. You can refuse to be complicit in what your employer does all you want, but understand that your employer is free to refuse to be complicit in paying you if you don’t do your job.
- Second, that $19.4 million contract can pay for 200 employees with $100k salaries for a year. How many of the employees who signed the letter would be willing to sacrifice their job if Microsoft has to make cuts? I would guess not more than a few are really all that invested in this campaign.
- Third, if they personally want to join the “get woke, go broke” movement, that’s their prerogative. What they don’t have the right to do is dictate their employer’s policies. Sure, they’re free to voice their opinions (at the peril of their employment, of course), but Microsoft has no responsibility to cave to their demands.
- Finally, government contracts are big business, often measured in billions of dollars. If the big boys like Microsoft and Amazon decide to renege on their contracts, I look forward to watching all the hustling entrepreneurs and small business owners who will fill the void—because ‘Merica!