What Do Tech Companies Do When Employees Push Back on Government Contracts?

Microsoft is the latest company to get called out by some of its workers for selling technology to the government.

Jeremy Bowman
Jeremy Bowman
Feb 26, 2019 at 7:20AM
Technology and Telecom

Big tech is increasingly creeping into the realm of big defense, and that's ruffling feathers among some of the software engineers who build that kind of technology.

This month, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) was the latest to get caught in such a web when a group of employees called on the tech giant to drop its $480 million contract to supply the U.S. Army with 100,000 HoloLens devices to aid in training.

The HoloLens is a virtual reality headset with a transparent lenses that gives users an augmented reality (AR) experience. It has multiple applications, including AR programs that can train professions like surgeons and mechanics how to do to various jobs. It does this using a combination of specialized hardware, artificial intelligence and other breakthrough technologies that Microsoft then helps businesses further develop and implement.

Check out the latest Microsoft earnings call transcript. 

A man uses a Microsoft HoloLens.

A Microsoft HoloLens demo. Image source: Microsoft.

Though Microsoft beat out several other companies for the government contract, more than 50 Microsoft employees signed a letter in protest of the deal, saying the devices would be "turning warfare into a simulated video game," in news first reported by The Washington Post. The employees also said they did not want to be "war profiteers." 

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella pushed back on the protest, saying he was open to discussing his company's corporate social responsibility, but that the company would not withhold technology from democratic governments, according to CNN

While the employees' letter may not change Microsoft's relationship with the Department of Defense, it is another instance of employee and citizen concern about big tech's growing role in military and government matters. 

Check out the latest Microsoft earnings call transcript.

Three's a trend

Microsoft isn't the only tech company butting heads over its relationship with military and law enforcement. Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) has taken heat over its dealings with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in part for holding talks with the department about licensing its facial recognition technology to the government agency. Amazon has also sold facial-recognition tech to police in states like Florida and Oregon, and the company's own employees sent a letter to CEO Jeff Bezos last June calling on the Amazon founder to suspend the sale of such technology to law enforcement agencies over privacy concerns.


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Amazon's relationship with ICE even became a flashpoint during hearings about its "HQ2" campus in New York in recent months, and appeared to be one of many reasons that Amazon pulled out of its agreement to open a new campus in New York.  

Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) ran into similar problems after employees signed a petition asking the company to withhold its artificial intelligence technology from the military. The Google-parent appears to be the only one of the big tech companies to heed the calls of its workforce. The company said last June that it would not renew a contract with the Pentagon related to that artificial intelligence initiative. 

What it means 

These employee protests are just the latest example of increasing concerns about the expanding reach of big tech companies in the media and among consumers more broadly. In addition to the backlash against Amazon in New York, headlines about privacy violations at Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and other social platforms dominated tech and business media for much of 2018. It seems both citizens and governments are becoming wary of the monopoly-like power of these giant tech companies, as Europe's passage of the General Data Protection Regulation in 2016 showed (it was implemented in 2018).

Employees at some of these companies seem to share similar concerns to the general public, as the protest at Microsoft indicates. And employee activism has also become increasingly popular, as a mass walkout at Google last year over sexual harassment issues demonstrated.

Though Nadella seems unfazed by the letter, big tech companies like Microsoft may want to be mindful of their relationships with military and law enforcement as well as their attempts to branch out beyond the historical confines of consumer and enterprise businesses in search of additional revenue. For a consumer-facing company like Microsoft, these types of projects walk a fine line and the risk of a broader backlash remains if its technology and devices end up being associated with overly aggressive law enforcement, civil rights violations, or even war.