Google staff resign in protest of continuing military collaboration

15 May 2018

Google’s Mountain View office. Image: JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock

Around a dozen employees at Google have apparently quit their jobs in protest over Project Maven.

Earlier this year, employees raised concerns to Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the company’s involvement with Project Maven, a scheme involving the use of AI technology to interpret drone footage and improve strike accuracy.

A US Pentagon programme, Maven was criticised by thousands of Google employees who said the company “should not be in the business of war”.

Staff walk out

Since the April petition, reports have emerged that close to a dozen staffers have resigned in protest due to Google’s continued involvement with Project Maven. At the time the letter was written, the company described the technology as non-offensive, but this does not seem to have been enough for concerned employees.

Gizmodo spoke to a number of the employees who voiced their concerns and anger at Google’s continued collaboration with a military programme. A resigning employee said: “Actions speak louder than words, and that’s a standard I hold myself to as well.

“I wasn’t happy just voicing my concerns internally. The strongest possible statement I could take against this was to leave,” the departing team member said.

Ethical concerns

Staff are upset about a variety of aspects, from particular ethical worries about the use of AI in drone attacks, to the tech giant’s political decisions in a broader sense.

Many employees said the company is less engaged with them in terms of listening to objections and disclosing important business decisions. “Over the last couple of months, I’ve been less and less impressed with the response and the way people’s concerns are being treated and listened to,” said one outgoing employee.

The internal petition has been signed by close to 4,000 employees at this stage. Google claims it is only providing open source software to Project Maven, meaning the military would still be able to use it without paying the company or requiring its input.

News of the project spread within the company in February and, at the time, a spokesperson said a policy document was on the way, but sources say that has yet to be circulated.

Academics speak out

On Monday (14 May), more than 90 researchers and academics signed an open letter that was addressed to executives including Pichai and Diane Greene, criticising the company’s involvement in Project Maven.

It read: “Project Maven is a United States military program aimed at using machine learning to analyse massive amounts of drone surveillance footage and to label objects of interest for human analysts. Google is supplying not only the open source ‘deep learning’ technology, but also engineering expertise and assistance to the Department of Defense.”

The letter also warned of a reduction in human oversight in the future: “As military commanders come to see the object-recognition algorithms as reliable, it will be tempting to attenuate or even remove human review and oversight for these systems.

“We are at a critical moment. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates growing public concern over allowing the tech industries to wield so much power. This has shone only one spotlight on the increasingly high stakes of information technology infrastructures, and the inadequacy of current national and international governance frameworks to safeguard public trust,” the letter concluded.

Google’s Mountain View office. Image: JHVEPhoto/Shutterstock

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects