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Google Military Contract Under Fire

Ross Kelly


USAF Predator Drone

Google employees are revolting against the company’s involvement with Project Maven, a US Department of Defence drone project. An open letter signed by hundreds of academics has been published supporting their decision. 

Academics from around the world have called on Google to stop working with the US Department of Defence as the company continues to use AI technology to analyse drone footage.

In an open letter signed by hundreds, academics have highlighted the worrying precedent that Google’s involvement sets. The letter was started by the International Committee for Robot Arms Control – an organisation founded by researchers concerned about the potential rise of autonomous weapon systems. Members of the non-governmental organisation include experts in the robotics and AI fields, as well as experts in law, ethics, security and international relations.

Concerning Trends

The open letter was written in support of Google employees currently revolting against the company’s cooperation with the Department of Defence and urges CEO Sundar Pichai, Diane Green, CEO of Google Cloud and Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of AI and Machine Learning, to cease their involvement, stating: “We wholeheartedly support their (the employees) demand that Google terminate its contract with the DoD, and that Google and its parent company Alphabet commit not to develop military technologies and not to use the personal data that they collect for military purposes.” Furthermore, the letter calls on the company’s executives to support an international treaty banning the development of autonomous weapons system.

Last month, when Google employees turned against the company they also penned an open letter to Pichai demanding that he “cancel the project immediately” and insisted that he publish a statement confirming that “neither Google nor its contractors will ever build warfare technology.”

Project Maven

Project Maven is a United States Military program aimed at using machine learning to observe and analyse massive amounts of surveillance footage taken by unmanned aerial drones. Part of Google’s involvement in this project is to label objects of interest for human analysts, who in turn will examine the footage and establish its potential use in intelligence operations.

Google is supplying not only the open source deep learning technology to the Department of Defence, but also providing engineering expertise and assistance to the department as part of the project.

Employees say this involvement contradicts the fundamental principles of the company, stating that “the private data collected by Google comes with a responsibility not only to use that data to improve its own technologies and expand its business, but also to benefit society. The company’s motto ‘Don’t Be Evil’ famously embraces this responsibility.”

According to the letter, initial trials of the project have taken place in the Middle East that included using small ScanEagle surveillance drones. However, the project is expected to expand to deadlier, more sophisticated Predator and Reaper drones. The letter asserts that it is wholly unacceptable and Google’s involvement in operations such as these, which have drawn widespread criticism and have come into question under both US and international law is fundamentally wrong.

“With Project Maven, Google becomes implicated in the questionable practice of targeted killings. These include so-called signature strikes and pattern-of-life strikes that target people based on probabilities drawn from long range surveillance not on known activities.

The letter doesn’t just support the decision of Google employees to revolt against this contract, it also highlights the worrying potential for Google to share its user data with the military for surveillance purposes. It says: “We are also deeply concerned about the possible integration of Google’s data on people’s everyday lives with military surveillance data, and its combined application to targeted killing.”

“We are at a critical moment. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates growing public concern over allowing the tech industries to wield so much power.”

Ross Kelly

Staff Writer

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