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. Nadir Weibel Associate Research Professor Computer Science and Engineering UC San Diego USA
Graduate Student Sumana Basu MSc Computer Science McGill University Canada
Prof. Stefan Tanaka Professor Communication University of Calfornia, San Diego USA
Prof. Benjamin Bratton Professor Center for Design and Geopolitics University of California, San Diego USA
Brendan Roach Student/Researcher Harvard Kennedy School USA
Mt Thomas ONeill IT management IT Client Services Pharmaceutical USA
Mr. Debanjan Chaudhuri Ph.D. student Informatik University of Bonn Germany
Jaap Jumelet The Netherlands
Mariam Mohamed Computer Science German University in Cairo Egypt
Shohre Zehtabian Data Scientist Computer Science and Operations Research Canada
Professor Teresa J Heffernan Professor English Literature Saint Mary's University Canada
Dr. Sebastian Gießmann Senior Lecturer Media Studies Siegen University Germany
Student Vinayak Tantia Intern MILA Canada
mounaim zaryouhi software engineer IT agriculture ministry Morocco
Ethan Grant Founder & CEO Data Security Nefarious Laboratories USA
Mr Xing Han Lu Student Computer Science McGill Canada
Prof Jenna Burrell Associate Professor School of Information UC-Berkeley USA
Ailie Fraser PhD Student Computer Science UC San Diego USA
Prof. Stacy Wood Assistant Professor School of Computing and Information University of Pittsburgh United States
Max Smith PhD Student Computer Science University of Michigan USA
Cory Altheide Security Engineer Facebook USA
Prof. Soufiane Mezroui Professor SIC Department, Mathematics ENSAT, Abdelmalek Essaady University Morocco
Carolina Tropini Postdoctoral fellow Biophysics Stanford United States
Mr Tom Bredin Front End Web Developer New Zealand
Miss Youmna Farag PhD student NLP University of Cambridge UK
Alec Munro Manager of Quality Assurance Insight Catastrophe Group Canada
Mr Laurent Chauvin PhD Student Machine Learning ETS Canada
Dr. Kerwyn Huang Associate professor Bioengineering Stanford Usa
PhD Brian Moore Training Coordinator IVADO Canada
Cristian Paul Bara PhD Candidate Computer Science and Engineering University of Michigan USA
M.Sc. Vivek Sharma Research Assistant Computer Science Institute for Anthropomatics and Robotics Germany
Martin Gibert Researcher Ethics of AI University of Montreal Canada
Ms Sonia Randhawa PhD candidate History University of Melbourne Australia
Allison Macfarlane Usa
Mr Arvind Nagaraj Technology Architect Data Engineering and Science Infosys United States
Joseph Seaton United Kingdom
Dr. Adam Dean Associate Professor Digital Media Arts Susquehanna University USA
Hadi Hafizi Data scientist USA
David Conran Ex-Google Australia
Ahmed mamdouh Applied research scientist Artificial intelligence Element AI Canada
Lector Tesse Veelo Change management ICT Nederland
Dr. Jane Lehr Chair Women's & Gender Studies California Polytechnic State University USA
Sravya tirukkovalur Senior machine learning engineer USA
network administrator Tarik TYANE Administrator Network and infrastructure technology Hassan 1st University Morocco
Prof. Esmail Bonakdarian Associate Professor Computer Science Dominican University USA
Abdul Aziz Nurussadad Statistician Geospatial Badan Informasi Geospasial Indonesia
Prof. Aaron Dell Lecturer English Tufts University USA
Dr. Kyle Broom USA
Mr Ariel Kanevsky United States
Dr Sky Croeser Lecturer Internet Studies Curtin University Australia
Damon Douglas United States
Jacqueline Wernimont Co-director, Human Security Collaboratory English and Digital Humanities Arizona State University USA
mr Clinton Schaeffer retired DevOps none USA
Mr. Raul França PhD student Faculty of Education UNICAMP Brazil
Dr Chris_Chesher Senior Lecturer in Digital Cultures Media and Communications University of Sydney Australia
Thao Phan PhD Candidate Media and Communications University of Melbourne Australia
Monika Streuer School of Management Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology Australia
Professor Leysia Palen Professor Information Science & Computer Science University of Colorado Boulder USA
Mr Guilherme Cruz Master's candidate Biochemistry University of Campinas Brazil
mr Andrey Stepanov Senior systems engineer Information Technologies Bauman Moscow State Technical University Russia
Noopur Raval Graduate Student Informatics University of California Irvine USA
Dr. Winifred Poster Lecturer International Affairs Washington University, St. Louis USA
Theodora Dryer PhD Candidate/Fellow UCSD STS History of Computing CHsTM USA
Mr. Adam Bruce Partner Virtual Reality VRLab & Wevr USA
Adhaamehab Adham Ehab Software engineer applied data science Floralytics Egypt
Dr Barbara_Bok Australia
Simon Guiroy Master's candidate Montreal Institute for Learning Algoritms (MILA) University of Montreal Canada
Attorney Robert O'Leary Owner Law Office of Robert O'Leary United States
Dr. Morteza Ghassemi Pincipal Member of Tech Staff Telecom AT&T USA
Susan Farrell UX Research and Strategy AI/ML products USA
Anasuya Sengupta Co-director Epistemic injustice Whose Knowledge? India/USA
Mr. Richard Steiger Computer Scientist, Entrepreneur Distributed Metaprogramming Ensemble Software Systems USA
Jose Ricardo Cuenca Enriquez Student Biomedical Engineering Tec de Monterrey Mexico
Dr. Joseph Owens Entrepreneurial Neuroscientist Early Stage Projects X, fka Google X USA
Dr. Aimi Hamraie Assistant professor Medicine, Health, &Society Vanderbilt University USA
Dr.rer.nat Arli Aditya Parikesit Faculty Member Bioinformatics Indonesia International Institute for Life Sciences Indonesia
Dr. Danya Glabau Adjunct Instructor Department of Technology, Culture, and Society NYU Tandon School of Engineering USA
Anna Kraemer United States
Mr. Apoorv Vyas Research Engineer Machine Learning Intel Labs India
Adam Terwilliger PhD Student Computer Science Michigan State University USA
Dr. Andrea Frome Engineer, AI Researcher, Consultant Computer Science USA
Prof. A. Aneesh Professor Sociology & Global Studies University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee USA
Prof. Kenneth Miller Professor Neuroscience Columbia University USA
Mr Hafeez Muhammy GM R&D Connected Car Toyota Motors USA
Dr. John Hyland Sociology Professor, Retired Sociology LaGuardia CC, CUNY USA
Mr Fibinse Xavier Data scientist Machine learning Freelancer India
Prof. Anh Nguyen Assistant Professor Computer Science & Software Engineering Auburn University USA
MFA Juan José Rojo PhD Student Communication UCSD Mexico
Ms Mareike Foecking Professor Photography Hochschule Düsseldorf Germany
Kyle Kastner PhD Student Montreal Institute for Learning Algorithms (MILA) University of Montreal Canada
Prof. Alfredo González Professor Cinematografía Universidad de las Californias UDCI México
Dr. Sassan Gholiagha Research Fellow International Politics and Law WZB Berlin Social Science Center Germany
Doctor Montano Assistant Professor USA
H. De Dauwe Healthcare The Netherlands
Dr Susanne Bødker Prof Computer Science Aarhus University Denmark
Dr. Luca Follis Lecturer Law School Lancaster University Uinted Kingdom
Alex A Ahmed Doctoral student Computer Science Northeastern University United States
Mrs Nazia Talat PhD student Centre for Studies in Science Policy, School of Social Sciences Jawaharlal Nehru University India
Lingyu Wang Graduate student Department of Media, Culture, and Communication New York University USA
Professor Adrian Smith Professor of Technology & Society Science Policy Research Unit University of Sussex UK