From The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/23/opinion/google-privacy-china.html
American companies continue to build surveillance tools that are used to violate human rights. Workers who refuse to comply deserve protections.
By Jack Poulson
Mr. Poulson is a former research scientist at Google.
April 23, 2019
“We can forgive your politics and focus on your technical contributions as long as you don’t do something unforgivable, like speaking to the press.”
This was the parting advice given to me during my exit interview from Google after spending a month internally arguing, resignation letter in hand, for the company to clarify its ethical red lines around Project Dragonfly, the effort to modify Search to meet the censorship and surveillance demands of the Chinese Communist Party.
When a prototype circulated internally of a system that would ostensibly allow the Chinese government to surveil Chinese users’ queries by their phone numbers, Google executives argued that it was within existing norms. Governments, after all, make law enforcement demands of the company all the time. Where, they asked their employees, was the demonstrable harm?
But the time has passed when tech companies can simply build tools, write algorithms and amass data without regard to who uses the technology and for what purpose.
Complaints from a single rank-and-file engineer aren’t going to lead a company to act against its significant financial interests. But history shows that dissenters — aided by courts or the court of public opinion — can sometimes make a difference. Even if that difference is just alerting the public to what these companies are up to.
Nearly a decade ago, Cisco Systems was sued in federal court on behalf of 11 members of the Falun Gong organization, who claimed that the company built a nationwide video surveillance and “forced conversion” profiling system for the Chinese government that was tailored to help Beijing crack down on the group. According to Cisco’s own marketing materials, the video analyzer — which would now be marketed as artificial intelligence — was the “only product capable of recognizing over 90 percent of Falun Gong pictorial information.”
Despite the court’s acknowledgment that Cisco built “individual features customized and designed specifically to find, track and suppress Falun Gong,” several early rulings went against the plaintiffs. And the case is still pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
The failure to punish Cisco set a precedent for American companies to build artificial intelligence for foreign governments to use for political oppression. This year, an investigation by The Times found that an American company, Thermo Fisher, sold DNA analyzers to aid in the current large-scale domestic surveillance and internment of hundreds of thousands of Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group, in the region of Xinjiang. After the story broke, the company said it would no longer sell equipment in Xinjiang.
Continue reading at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/23/opinion/google-privacy-china.html