Open Letter in Support of Google Employees and Tech Workers

Researchers in Support of Google Employees: Google should withdraw from Project Maven and commit to not weaponizing its technology.

An Open Letter To:

Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet;
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google;
Diane Greene, CEO of Google Cloud;
and Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of AI/ML and Vice President, Google Cloud,

As scholars, academics, and researchers who study, teach about, and develop information technology, we write in solidarity with the 3100+ Google employees, joined by other technology workers, who oppose Google’s participation in Project Maven. We wholeheartedly support their 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. The extent to which military funding has been a driver of research and development in computing historically should not determine the field’s path going forward. We also urge Google and Alphabet’s executives to join other AI and robotics researchers and technology executives in calling for an international treaty to prohibit autonomous weapon systems.

Google has long sought to organize and enhance the usefulness of the world’s information. Beyond searching for relevant webpages on the internet, Google has become responsible for compiling our email, videos, calendars, and photographs, and guiding us to physical destinations. Like many other digital technology companies, Google has collected vast amounts of data on the behaviors, activities and interests of their users. 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.

Project Maven is a United States military program aimed at using machine learning to analyze massive amounts of drone surveillance footage and to label objects of interest for human analysts. Google is supplying not only the open source ‘deep learning’ technology, but also engineering expertise and assistance to the Department of Defense.

According to Defense One, Joint Special Operations Forces “in the Middle East” have conducted initial trials using video footage from a small ScanEagle surveillance drone. The project is slated to expand “to larger, medium-altitude Predator and Reaper drones by next summer” and eventually to Gorgon Stare, “a sophisticated, high-tech series of cameras…that can view entire towns.” 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 not on known activities but on probabilities drawn from long range surveillance footage. The legality of these operations has come into question under international[1] and U.S. law.[2] These operations also have raised significant questions of racial and gender bias (most notoriously, the blanket categorization of adult males as militants) in target identification and strike analysis.[3] These problems cannot be reduced to the accuracy of image analysis algorithms, but can only be addressed through greater accountability to international institutions and deeper understanding of geopolitical situations on the ground.

While the reports on Project Maven currently emphasize the role of human analysts, these technologies are poised to become a basis for automated target recognition and autonomous weapon systems. As military commanders come to see the object recognition algorithms as reliable, it will be tempting to attenuate or even remove human review and oversight for these systems. According to Defense One, the DoD already plans to install image analysis technologies on-board the drones themselves, including armed drones. We are then just a short step away from authorizing autonomous drones to kill automatically, without human supervision or meaningful human control. If ethical action on the part of tech companies requires consideration of who might benefit from a technology and who might be harmed, then we can say with certainty that no topic deserves more sober reflection – no technology has higher stakes – than algorithms meant to target and kill at a distance and without public accountability.

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. Google has moved into military work without subjecting itself to public debate or deliberation, either domestically or internationally. While Google regularly decides the future of technology without democratic public engagement, its entry into military technologies casts the problems of private control of information infrastructure into high relief.

Should Google decide to use global internet users’ personal data for military purposes, it would violate the public trust that is fundamental to its business by putting its users’ lives and human rights in jeopardy. The responsibilities of global companies like Google must be commensurate with the transnational makeup of their users. The DoD contracts under consideration by Google, and similar contracts already in place at Microsoft and Amazon, signal a dangerous alliance between the private tech industry, currently in possession of vast quantities of sensitive personal data collected from people across the globe, and one country’s military. They also signal a failure to engage with global civil society and diplomatic institutions that have already highlighted the ethical stakes of these technologies.

We are at a critical moment. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates growing public concern over allowing the tech industries to wield so much power. This has shone only one spotlight on the increasingly high stakes of information technology infrastructures, and the inadequacy of current national and international governance frameworks to safeguard public trust. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of systems engaged in adjudicating who lives and who dies.
We thus ask Google, and its parent company Alphabet, to:

  • Terminate its Project Maven contract with the DoD.
  • Commit not to develop military technologies, nor to allow the personal data it has collected to be used for military operations.
  • Pledge to neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade or use of autonomous weapons; and to support efforts to ban autonomous weapons.

[1] See statements by Ben Emmerson, UN Special Rapporteur on Counter-Terrorism and Human Rights and by Christof Heyns, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions.

[2] See for example Murphy & Radsan 2009.

[3] See analyses by Reaching Critical Will 2014, and Wilke 2014.


Add Your Signature to this Letter:

Total Signatures: 1118, showing 100 per page
Prof. Diego Calvanese Professor and Vicedean Faculty of Computer Science Free University of Bozen-Bolzano Italy
Prof. Michael Cole Distinguished Professor, Emeritus Communication & Psychology UCSD USA
Prof. James Delgrande Professor Computing Science Simon Fraser University Canada
Prof. Tara McPherson Professor School of Cinematic Arts USC USA
Prof. Andrew Clement Professor Emeritus Faculty of Information University of Toronto Canada
Prof. Christina Dunbar-Hester Associate Professor Department of Communication Annenberg School, USC USA
Prof. Meg Leta Jones Assistant Professor Communication, Culture & Technology Georgetown University USA
Dr. Nick Srnicek Lecturer Digital Humanities Kings College London UK
Prof. Finn Brunton Assistant Professor Department of Media, Culture, and Communication New York University USA
Prof Frank van Harmelen Prof. of AI Dept. of Computer Science Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam The Netherlands
Prof. Thomas Stubblefield Associate Professor Art History University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth USA
Professor Finn Kensing Full Professor Computer Science University of Copenhagen Denmark
Professor Marc Le Goc Full Professor Artificial Intelligence Aix-Marseille University France
Dr. William Fleischman Professor Computing Sciences and Philosophy (Ethics) Villanova University United States
Prof. Britta Schinzel Professor Computer Science Freiburg University Gemany
Dr. Steven Wright Reader Global Applied Ethics Leeds Beckett University UK
Prof. Ken MacLeish Assistant Professor Center for Medicine, Health & Society and Department of Anthropology Vanderbilt University USA
Prof. Patrick Kielty Assistant Professor Faculty of Information University of Toronto Canada
Dr. Elke Schwartz Lecturer School of History, Politics & International Relations University of Leicester UK
Prof. Guglielmo Tamburrini Professor Department of Electrical Engineering and Information Technology Universita’ di Napoli “Federico II” Italy
Prof. Robert Sparrow Professor Philosophy and Applied Ethics Monash University Australia
Prof. Joaquín Rodríguez Álvarez Professor School of Prevention and Integral Safety and Security Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona Spain
Prof. Denise Garcia Professor Political Science Northeastern University USA
Wendell Wallach Chair Technology and Ethics Research Group Yale University USA
Prof. Itty Abraham Southeast Asian Studies National University Singapore Singapore
Prof. Kavita Philip Department of History UC Irvine USA
Dr. Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan Research Coordinator Landmine & Cluster Munition Monitor Canada
Prof. Matt Bolton Associate Professor Political Science Pace University USA
Dr. Frank Sauer Senior Research Fellow and Lecturer Institute for Political Science Bundeswehr University Munich Germany
Prof. Jutta Weber Professor Institute for Media Studies Paderborn University Germany
Prof Dr Tanja Lange Professor Mathematics and Computer Science Eindhoven University of Technology Netherlands
Dr Birgit Schippers Senior Lecturer Politics St Mary's University College Belfast N. Ireland
Dr. Jess Bier Assistant Professor Sociology, STS & Geography Erasmus University Rotterdam The Netherlands
Professor Laila Shereen Sakr Assistant Prof. Film and Media Studies UC Santa Barbara United States
Prof. Matteo Pasquinelli Professor Media Theory University of Arts and Design Karlsruhe Germany
Dr. Soenke Zehle Lecturer xm:lab - Experimental Media Lab Hochschule der Bildenden Kuenste Saar Germany
Prof. Nancy Ettlinger Professor Geography Ohio State University USA
Prof. Chris Russill Associate Professor Communication and Media Carleton University Canada
Dr Sara Matthews Associate Professor Global Studies Wilfrid Laurier University Canada
Prof. Ashley Mack Assistant Professor Communication Studies Louisiana State University United States
Professor Inderpal Grewal Chair and Professor Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Yale University USA
Prof. Felix Stalder Professor Digital Culture Zurich University of the Arts Switzerland
Dr. Peter C. van Wyck Professor Communication & Media Studies Concordia University Canada
Dr Nicole Falkenhayner Senior Lecturer English Department University of Freiburg Germany
Dr. Nathan Rambukkana Assistant Professor Communication Studies Wilfrid Laurier University Canada
Prof. Tamara Kneese Assistant Professor Media Studies University of San Francisco USA
Prof. Diana Mincyte Assistant Professor Social Science City University of New York-City Tech USA
Ms. Maura Puscheck NYU United States
Prof. Kevin Howley Professor Media Studies DePauw University USA
Dr Liam Magee Senior Research Fellow Institute for Culture and Society Western Sydney University Australia
Prof. Karen Levy Assistant Professor Information Science, Law Cornell University USA
Dr. Edmund Pries Assistant Professor Global Studies Wilfrid Laurier University Canada
Trip Kirkpatrick Associate Director, Educational Technology Center for Teaching and Learning Yale University USA
Prof. Nicholas Knouf Assistant Professor Cinema and Media Studies Wellesley College USA
Prof Rolien Hoyng Assistant Professor Communication Chinese University of Hong Kong Hong Kong SAR
Miriam Garcia Marketing Coordinator Media and Communication Wonen Make Movies USA
Prof. Amparo Lasen Professor Sociología Aplicada University Complutense Madrid Spain
Prof. Joshua Reeves Assistant Professor Media/Communications Oregon State University USA
Dr Jean-Christophe Plantin Assistant professor Media and communications London school of economics and political science United Kingdom
Prof. Antina von Schnitzler Associate Professor International Affairs/Anthropology The New School USA
Prof. Ben Grosser Assistant Professor School of Art + Design, and NCSA University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign USA
Prof. Piotr Szpunar Assistant Professor Communication University at Albany, SUNY USA
Assistant Professor Rajesh Veeraraghavan Assistant Professor Science,Technology and International Affairs Georgetown University USA
Prof. Sarah Strauss Professor Anthropology University of Wyoming United States
Dr. Ellie Harmon Senior Instructor Computer Science Portland State University USA
Jeff Gerrits Systems Technician Healthcare SRHC Cannada
Christopher Miles PhD Candidate Informatics Indiana University United States of America
Professor Henry Farrell Professor Political Science George Washington University US
Ph.D. Claudio Gallicchio Italia
Dr Aurélien Tabard Associate Professor Computer Science Université de Lyon France
Dr Sarah Tuck Researcher Arts Research + Curation Valand Academy, Gothenburg University Sweden
Dr Jonathan Gray Lecturer Department of Digital Humanities King's College London UK
Marina Črnko Lecturer Crisis Management University of Applied Scineces Velika Gorica Croatia
Mr. Christopher Caulfield Professor Philosophy College of Saint Rose United States
Dr. Daghan Irak Postdoctoral Researcher MediaLab Sciences Po Paris France
Dr. Goetz Herrmann Lecturer Media Studies Paderborn University Germany
Dr. Lisa McLaughlin Associate Professor Media Studies Miami University United States
Allen Goodman Computer Science Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard USA
Dr. Karen Gregory Lecturer in Digital Sociology Sociology University of Edinburgh United Kingdom
pinar dag lecturer Communication & New Media Khas University Turkey
Nadia Dresscher-Lambertus PhD candidate / Lecturer Faculty of Arts and Science / ASCA University of Aruba, University of Amsterdam Aruba / The Netherlands
Prof Robert Yang Assistant Professor College of Arts and Sciences New York University USA
Prof. Alycia_Sellie Assistant Professor Library CUNY Graduate Center USA
Fellow Nathan Kaiser Law Berkman Klein Center Switzerland
Dr Andreia Oliveira Visiting lecturer Photography Birmingham City University UK
MA Nina Franz PhD student Institut of Cultural History and Theory Humboldt University Berlin Germany
Mauricio Castillo Lecturer Game Design and Development México
Prof. Nina Lager Vestberg Professor Art and Media Studies NTNU Norwegian University of Science and Technology Norway
Dr Alcides Peron Postdoctoral Researcher Faculdade de Filosofia e Ciências Humanas Universidade de São Paulo Brazil
Associate Professor Aziz Choudry Canada Research Chair in Social Movement Learning and Knowledge Production Integrated Studies in Education McGill University Canada
Prof. Alan Mackworth Professor Computer Science University of British Columbia Canada
Professor Charlton McIlwain Associate Professor Media, Culture, and Communication New York University United States
Stefan Jensen Lecturer Valand Academy - Photography University of Gothenburg Sweden
Ms. Amy Fox Doctoral Student Cognitive Science UC San Diego USA
Dr. Sarah Myers West Communication USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism USA
Prof. Lisa Messeri Assistant Professor Anthropology Yale University USA
Dr. Vicki Mayer Professor Communication Tulane University USA
Burcu Baykurt Communications Columbia University USA
Prof. Nicholas Sammond Associate Professor Cinema Studies Institute University of Toronto Canada
Donald Everhart PhD Candidate Sociology and Science Stufies University of California, San Diego USA