Microsoft hit with criticism for contract with US immigration authorities

19 Jun 2018

US border control station in Texas. Image: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock

Microsoft is the latest company to become embroiled in the growing debate around ethics and technology.

As the Trump administration is criticised for its policy of separating immigrant families, tech giant Microsoft is also taking some heat. According to anonymous company sources who spoke to Gizmodo, the atmosphere in the company is fraught.

In January of this year, Microsoft publicised the partnership between its Azure cloud platform and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), stating it was “proud to support” the efforts of the agency. Given the scale of the firm, not all employees were initially aware of the agreement and many are unhappy.

ICE policies condemned

Recent reports of ICE agents detaining families seeking asylum and confining children in cages likely shone a spotlight on this partnership.

One staff member told Gizmodo: “I’ll seriously consider leaving if I’m not happy with how they handle this.”

According to the blogpost from Microsoft written earlier this year, the company’s Azure platform was being used to handle sensitive, unclassified data on behalf of ICE. The post explained that ICE employees could potentially “utilise deep-learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification”.

Author of the post, Tom Keane, 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.”

Microsoft responds

Microsoft condemned the practice of family separation in a statement but declined to give details on the specifics of how ICE used its tools. It did not comment on whether it had assisted the agency in building AI systems.

It said: “In response to questions, we want to be clear: Microsoft is not working with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement or US 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.

“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.

“As a company, Microsoft has worked for over 20 years to combine technology with the rule of law to ensure that children who are refugees and immigrants can remain with their parents. We need to continue to build on this noble tradition rather than change course now.”

This latest development is one of several in the last number of months around the relationship between tech companies and a government whose policies are being criticised from an ethical standpoint. For example, the involvement of Google with a Pentagon AI project has also received attention in recent times.

The scrutiny on firms working with agencies such as ICE or military groups around the world is likely to continue for some time.

US border control station in Texas. Image: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock

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