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Google and Amazon want more defense contracts, despite worker protests

A Project Nimbus cloud contract with the Israeli government has some Google and Amazon workers upset.
Enlarge / A Project Nimbus cloud contract with the Israeli government has some Google and Amazon workers upset.

Hundreds of Google workers and their supporters gathered near the company’s downtown San Francisco offices Thursday, raising signs that read “No Tech for Apartheid” and filling the air with chants of “Tech from Amazon and Google! You can’t claim that you are neutral!”

Similar scenes unfolded outside Google and Amazon offices in New York and Seattle, and a Google office in Durham, North Carolina. Google and Amazon employees were joined at the rallies by tech workers from other companies and Palestinian rights organizations. They all convened to protest Project Nimbus, Google and Amazon’s cloud computing contract with the Israeli government.

Google documents published by The Intercept show the contract includes AI technology such as face detection, video analysis, and sentiment analysis. Opponents of the deal worry the Israeli military could use the technology to expand surveillance of Palestinians living in occupied territories and violate human rights.

In an email, Google Cloud spokesperson Atle Erlingsson wrote that Google Cloud proudly supports numerous governments, including Israel’s. He accused protestors of misrepresenting Project Nimbus, saying that “Our work is not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads,” but he acknowledged that the contract will provide Israel’s military access to Google technology. Amazon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The demonstrations retread familiar territory for Google, after thousands of workers signed a letter in 2018 condemning a Pentagon drone surveillance contract, Project Maven. Dozens of employees resigned over the deal, which also prompted outcry from academics, including Google cofounder Larry Page’s former Stanford adviser. The company eventually said it would not seek to renew the contract and published a set of AI principles meant to serve as ethical guideposts.

Some Google employees who oppose Project Nimbus say it breaches some of those promises, which include a pledge to not pursue technologies that “gather or use information for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms” or breach “widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Israel routinely abuses Palestinian human rights, and call Israel an apartheid state.

Aniran Chandravongsri joined Google’s cloud division as a Seattle-based software engineer during the height of the Maven protests in May 2018. Having previously worked at General Electric, a major Pentagon contractor, he says seeing the outcry “was a reason I felt a little bit more comfortable joining Google.” Over the years, he has signed petitions protesting the company’s work with police departments and US Customs and Border Patrol, but he decided to take a leadership role in the pushback against Project Nimbus.

Chandravongsri’s parents were born in Laos, where he still has extended family. He has seen first-hand how CIA-led bombing campaigns during the 1960s and 1970s left a deadly legacy of unexploded ordnance that still threatens lives today, a problem seen in many war zones, including Gaza. He says reading the AI capabilities included in Project Nimbus “really scared me.”

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