Microsoft/ICE: Tech companies working with the bad guys is nothing new

Technology industry has long worked with questionable entities, and this will only accelerate in the future.

Last week saw the US government come under fire for its treatment of immigrants trying to cross the border. Amid the unpleasant scenes, Microsoft came under heavy fire for its involvement with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

But this is far from the only time a tech company has been involved with unpleasant actions. And in recent times this trend has only accelerated.


When tech companies supply questionable projects

In January the Redmond company was promoting ICE’s adoption of Azure as an example of how it can help government agencies modernize. However, this relationship was criticized online, and then saw Microsoft employees demand the company cancel its contract with ICE and ‘other clients who directly enable ICE.’

“We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits,” read an open letter from employees to CEO Satya Nadella. “As the people who build the technologies that Microsoft profits from, we refuse to be complicit.”

In response, Nadella released a statement saying that he was “appalled at the abhorrent policy” while highlighting that Microsoft’s involvement with ICE was purely around supporting legacy mail, calendar, messaging and document management workloads and “not working with the U.S. government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border.”

But this is just the latest in a series of examples of tech companies supplying customers that act in unethical or disagreeable ways.

Earlier this year, Google came under similar fire for supplying the US Department of Defense (DoD) with computer vision technology and expertise as part of its military drone efforts under the name Project Maven. Again, open letters, online backlash, and employee resignations led to the company not renewing its contract with the DoD for Project Maven, and CEO Sundar Pichai saying that the company would no longer design or deploy AI for weapons or technologies designed to do harm.

In June, shareholders and privacy activists asked Amazon to stop supplying facial recognition technology to police, saying that they were concerned such activities would “ultimately violate civil and human rights.”

Social networks and secure communication tools are constantly under fire for enabling hate speech, terrorists, and other undesirable speech to propagate on their platforms.


A history of unethical tech

This trend is nothing new. Smaller, more specialized companies have long supplied surveillance and hacking technology to various governments and agencies, both democratic and oppressive. Despite effort from regulators to limit security software exports, the likes of the Hacking Team, Sandvine, Utimaco, Netsweeper, Lench IT have all supplied surveillance, malware, and censorship software to oppressive regimes. Nokia Siemens and Procera Networks have likewise provided communications infrastructure to regimes.

In the auto industry, Bosch code was reportedly being used to help Volkswagen create software to help it cheat on diesel emissions tests for several years, although Bosch did reportedly warn VW around the legality of what it was planning to do.

The most infamous example is IBM. During World War II, the German subsidiary of IBM (then known as the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company), Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen GmbH, supplied tabulating machines and punch cards to the Nazi government. These devices were used in a census to identify Jews and other minorities, who were then taken to concentration camps.

IBM’s punch card systems were also used during US efforts to send those of Japanese ancestry to internment camps during the war. The company came under fire again in the 1980s for supplying the South African government and aiding Apartheid. Though the company eventually ceased operations there, it has still faced a lawsuit for ‘purposefully facilitating Apartheid’.

Workers can write as many open letters and take all the pledges they want, but as every aspect of society becomes more technology and software-driven, companies will increasingly be asked to work with governments, agencies, and companies that do things that their employees and society at large may not agree with. While some will take their ethical standards seriously, expect just as many to puts revenue and shareholder value first, outcry be damned.