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.


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Dr. Brit Winthereik Professor BusinessIT IT University Denmark
Prof. Miroslaw Filiciak Associate Professor Cultural Studies SWPS University Poland
Prof. Michael Greenberg Assistant professor Computer Science Pomona College USA
Dr Philipp Grunewald UK
Jolanta Dolewska UK
Dr. Sushant Tripathy Data Scientist Credit Risk PayPal United States
Jamie Kulhanek United States
Prof. Joel Chan Assistant Professor College of Information Studies University of Maryland USA
Dr. Ron Tsur Consultant Computer Technology Stratified Networks, Inc. USA
Daniel Marciniak PhD Candidate Sociology University of Essex United Kingdom
Prof. Maria Eugenia Occhiuto Associate Professor Computer Science University of Pisa Italy
Researcher Selin Cetin LAM Student IT Law Bilgi University Turkey
Prof. Markus Reisenleitner Professor Humanities York University Canada
Susan Ingram Humanities York University Canada
LEAH HORGAN Informatics UC Irvine United States
Doctoral Researcher Janna Joceli Omena Researcher iNOVA Media Lab Universidade Nova de Lisboa Portugal
Professor Toby Miller Research Professor Graduate Division University of California, Riverside US
Prof. Christo Sims Assistant Professor Communication UC San Diego USA
Prof. Nick Seaver Assistant Professor Anthropology Tufts University USA
Dr. Mél Hogan Assistant Prof. Communication and Media University of Calgary Canada
Sergey Sosnin PhD Student Skoltech Russia
Dr. Paige Sarlin Assistant Professor Media Study University at Buffalo/SUNY United States
MR paul greer United States
Dr. Sarah T. Roberts Assistant Professor Information Studies UCLA USA
Fabian Prieto PhD candidate Media and Communication University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign United States
Meredith Whittaker Distinguished Research Scientist New York University USA
Sriram Mohan PhD Candidate Communication Studies & STS University of Michigan USA
Associate Professor Johan Söderberg Theory of Science Gothenburg University Sweden
Prof. Megan Finn Assistant Professor Information School University of Washington USA
Dr Jutta Haider Associate Professor Information Studies Lund University Sweden
Richard Maxwell Professor Media Studies CUNY-Queens USA
Dr Paul Gilbert Lecturer School of Global Studies University of Sussex United Kingdom
Dmitry Kudinov Sr. Data Scientist United States of America
Dr. Philip Inglesant Postdoctoral Researcher Computer Science/Responsible Innovation University of Oxford UK
Jessica Cussins AI Policy Specialist Future of Life Institute United States
Tamara Alvarez Anthropology The New School United States
Seth Erickson Doctoral Candidate Information Studies UCLA United States
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Dr David Beasley UK
Dr. Ulrich Stopper Team Leader image preparation in video-based ADAS Germany
Ksenia Korovina Russia
Dr. Katarina Mayer AI researcher AI & Big Data independent Slovakia
Zoe Wool Assistant Professor Department of Anthropology Rice University US
Dr. Javier de la Rosa Research Engineer Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research Stanford University USA
Co Founder Shalini Ananda USA
Professor Gloria Mark Professor Information and Computer Sciences University of California, Irvine USA
Anna Aberg Assistant Professor Dept och Science, Technology and Society Chalmers University of Technology Gothernburg
Dr. Jennifer Terry Professor Gender & Sexuality Studies University of California, Irvine USA
Dr Michael Richardson Lecturer School of the Arts and Media UNSW Australia
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Prof. Sally Wyatt Professor STS Maastricht University The Netherlands
Dr Timnit Gebru Postdoctoral Researcher Computer Science Microsoft United States
Dr. Daniel Greene Researcher Information Studies and STS MSR USA
Prof. Alvin Grissom II Assistant Professor Math and Computer Science Ursinus College United States
Prof. Alen Hadzovic Assistant Professor Chemistry UTSC Canada
Dr Alice Courvoisier Lecturer Electronic Engineering York UK
Prof. Daniel Erni Professor Electrical Engineerin and Information Technology University of Duisburg-Essen Germany
phD candidate Forough Poursabzi CS/machine learning US
Dr. Marco Lamberti Italy
Dr. Tiago Duarte Assistant Professor Sociology University of Brasília Brazil
Dr. Sarah McCulough Associate Director Feminist Research Institute UC Davis USA
Dr Susanne Heeger Assistant professor Law Utrecht University The Netherlands
Christine Lee front end develop USA
Dr. Raffael Himmelsbach Coordinator for responsible research and innovation Centre for Digital Life Norway NTNU Norway
Dr. Sally A. Applin Research Fellow Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing - Human Relations Area Files University of Kent, Canterbury, Yale University UK and US
Prof. Knut Sorensen Professor Dept. Interdisciplinary Studies of Culture Norwegian University of Science and Technology Norway
Willem de Bruijn The Netherlands
Ruben Jansen Netherlands
Julia Backhaus PhD student Sustainability Science Maastricht University Netherlands
Marta Palau-Franco EU Project Manager Bristol Robotics Laboratory University of the West of England, Bristol UK
Mr. Dylan Martin Student School of Information Science and Learning Technologies University of Missouri USA
Mr. Jayant pahuja India
Mark L Anderson Instructor (Retired) Photoscience/Journalism U.S. Signal School United States
Dr Negar Rostamzadeh Research Scientist Computer Science Element AI Canada
Tim Higgins USA
Dr. Nuno Boavida Reseacher Technology Assessment Universidade Nova de Lisboa Portugal
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professor emerita Joan Greenbaum New Media Lab Graduate Center CUNY USA
Chiara Addis UK
Prof. David Klein Professor Mathematical Physics California State University Northridge USA
Ghazaleh Kazeminejad PhD Candidate Computational Linguistics/AI University of Colorado Boulder United States
Mario Giulianelli Artificial Intelligence University of Amsterdam Netherlands
Antonio Suico United States
Dr Alex Hanna Assistant Professor Institute of Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology University of Toronto Canada
Mr Thomas Varsavsky PhD student Computer Vision University College London UK
Prof. Jennifer Lieberman Assistant professor English University of North Florida United States
MSc Ruben Villegas PhD student Computer Science & Engineering / Artificial Intelligence University of Michigan United States of America
Mr Erik Appelhof Risk Investigations Risk Management Global Payments Inc US
Samarth Bhargav Student Artificial Intelligence University of Amsterdam Netherlands
Alexander Keijser Student Artifical Intelligence University of Amsterdam Netherlands
Gulfaraz Rahman Artificial Intelligence University of Amsterdam The Netherlands
Dr Jack Stilgoe Senior Lecturer Science and technology studies UCL U.K.
Mr. Jack Jamieson Doctoral candidate Faculty of Information University of Toronto Canada
Joanna Jia US
Dr Timothy Strom Postdoctoral Researcher Institute for Culture and Society Western Sydney University Australia
Dhruba Pujary Student Artificial Intelligence University of Amsterdam Netherlands
Petar Ivanov PhD student and ex-googler Comuter Science, Computational Biology ETH Zurich Switzerlnd
Prof Frank Huysmans Professor Information Studies University of Amsterdam the Netherlands
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