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
Mr Raymond Kilby owner Aircraft manufacturing S.P.Airparts USA
Lucio Leone United States
Ferran Capo Spain
Dr Marcus Breen Assistant Professor of the Practice Communication Boston College USA
Dr. James W Malazita Assistant Professor STS and Game Design Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute United States
Dr Kristrun Gunnarsdottir Senior Research Fellow Sociology/Technology Studies University of Surrey United Kingdom
Chris Lesser PhD Candidate Geography UC Berkeley USA
Dr, Jennifer Jacobs Postdoctoral Fellow Computer Science Stanford University USA
Dr. Arthur Tilley Software Engineer Google United States
Professor John Bowers Professor of Creative Digital Practice Culture Lab and Fine Art Newcastle University United Kingdom
Prof. Shane Denson Assistant Professor of Film & Media Studies Department of Art & Art History Stanford University USA
Nicolqs Le Roux Research scientist Google Brain Canada
Dr Bettina Nissen Research Associate HCI University of Edinburgh United Kingdom
Caroline Tracey Graduate Student Geography UC Berkeley USA
Dr. Davison Bideshi Associate Professor Sociology and Anthropology Western Illinois University USA
Sam Walton Undergrade Student Economics University of Reading United Kingdom
Enrique Rodríguez León Analyst Emergency management Local government Duran city Ecuador
Dr Michael Birtwhistle Consultant Psychiatrist UK
Dr Alex Wilkie Senior Lecturer Design Goldsmiths, University of London United Kingdom
Ms. Megan Johnson United States
Dr Dwayne Winseck Professor School of Journalism and Communication Carleton University Ottawa
Jonathan Schmidt PhD fellow Departement of Organization Copenhagen Business School Denmark
Samantha Breslin PhD Candidate Anthropology Memorial University of Newfoundland Canada
Rudy Fabunan Evol. biol SDSU USA
Prof. Celine Latulipe Professor Computing & Informatics University of North Carolina at Charlotte United States
Dr. Rhone Fraser Independent Scholar Black Studies U.S.A.
Mr Gerry McCulloch Head of Cinematography Media & Communications Goldsmiths, University of London UK
Prof. Diolia Graziano Professor Cultural management Senac University Center Brazil
Dr. Raquel Pacheco Postdoctoral fellow Anthropology UC Santa Cruz UC Santa cruz USA
Prof. Anna Lauren Hoffmann Assistant Professor The Information School University of Washington USA
Professor Minh-Ha T. Pham Associate Professor Media Studies Pratt Institute USA
Dr. Peter Mawhorter Postdoctoral Scholar CSAIL Massachusetts Institute of Technology USA
Victoria_Omeara PhD Candidate Information and Media Studies Western University Canada
Nadina Cardillo Spain
Mr. Andrew Docherty Student Economics Stanford University USA
Soroush Mehri Researcher MSR Canada
Jennifer Stoneking Concerned Urban Studies and Public Administration Cleveland State University USA
Ali Alkhatib PhD Student Computer Science Stanford University United States
Dr Mouhamad Dimassi CEO Artificial Intelligence Try&Fit France
Kazuya Sakurada Lecturer Urban Research Plaza Osaka City University Japan
Ilham Makdisi Associate Professor History Northeastern University USA
Lauren Sorensen Doctoral student Information Studies University of California, Los Angeles USA
Prof. Perry Hoberman Associate Research Professor Division of Media Arts + Practice USC School of Cinematic Arts United States
Po-Hsuan Huang PhD student Neuroscience University of Southern California USA
Prof. Martin Pichlmair Associate Professor Center for Computer Game Studies IT University Copenhagen Denmark
Professor Mike Ananny Associate Professor Annenberg School for Comm & Journalism University of Southern California USA
Mr Julien Aupetit Support Engineer France
Bojana Percan Croatia
Mr Noel Sofley Research Computer Science None UK
Lawrence Lin Murata Founder/CEO Brazil
Dr Clare Southerton Sociology Australian National University Australia
Dr Pinar Yoldas assistant professor visual arts ucsd usa
Dr. Thomas Keller Postdoctoral Researcher AI Planning University of Basel Switzerland
Drs Fred The Netherlands
Dr. Maurizio Teli Assistant Professor Participatory Desin Madeira Interactive Technologies Institute Portugal
Prof. Jennifer Gabrys Professor Sociology Goldsmiths, University of London United Kingdom
Mr. Shyam P Student Technology Management Grenoble Ecole de Management France
MR Andy Boucher Co-director Interaction Research Studio United Kingdom
Mr Scott Robinson PhD researcher Design Goldsmiths Uk
Peter Kiss Hungary
Dr. Mieke Massink Researcher CNR Italy
Gabriele Schliwa PhD Researcher School of Environment, Education and Development The University of Manchester UK
Mr Tom Keen PhD Researcher Design Goldsmiths University of London UK
Professor Stefano Campi Full professor (retired) Dipartimento Ingegneria dell'Informazione e Scienze Matematiche University of Siena Italy
Florian Hofer PhD Candidate Computer Science and Engineering Free University of Bolzano-Bozen Italy
Dr Maria Puig De La Bellacasa Associate Professor University of Leicester United Kingdom
Prof. Chris Kesteloot Professor Earth and Environmental Sciences-Geography KU Leuven Belgium
Dr. Luca Anibaldi Senior Software Engineer Asset Management and Private Banking Italy
Monika Jaeckel PhD student CREAM University of Westminster London
Mr Adrian Jarvis Customer Australia
Dr Mark Burdon Senior Lecturer Law University of Queensland Australia
Mr. Hugo Leon Student Artificial Intelligence University of Edinburgh Spain and Holland
Luiz Merkle Professor Computer Science and STS Paraná Federal University of Technology Brazil
Pr. Isabelle Bloch Professor Image understanding and artificial intelligence Télécom ParisTech France
Dr Emily Gilbert Associate Professor Geography and Planning University of Toronto Canada
Prof Jean-Marc Deschamps professeur Informatique Cégep du Vieux Montréal Canada
Prof Alessandro Bianchi Ricercatore Informatics University of Bari Italy
Mrs KaiyaMorris Chemist Quality Control 4Life Research United States
Miss Yazmin_Morlet_Corti PhD Candidate Politics University of Edinburgh UK
Andy Rivkin Computer Science Free University of Bozen-Bolzano Italy
mr augusto gomez chile
Dr Guido Noto La Diega Co-convenor of NINSO The Northumbria Internet & Society Research Group School of Law Northumbria University Unite Kingdom
Dr. Lilly Nguyen Assistant Professor Women's and Gender Studies, Information Studies University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill USA
Mrs. Chrisanthy LaBua Google user - TBD USA
Douglas Mayo-Wells Designer Interaction Design Google USA
Carla Maria Kayanan Researcher Urban Planning USA
Dr. Gianmarco Veruggio Director of Research IEIIT-Genoa National Research Council Italy
dr. Francesco Isgrò DIETI Università di Napoli Federico II Italy
Dr Jochen Krause CTO/COO Data Scince Valdon Mesh Germany
Prof. Jeremy Packer Associate Professor Institute for Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology University of Toronto Canada
Dr Christophe Rey Associate Professor Computer Science University Clermont Auvergne France
Dr. Humbert Fiorino Associate Professor Artificial Intelligence Université Grenoble Alpes France
Engineer Bernd K Lead Engineer Telecommunication Spain
Professor piero bevilacqia ritired Italy
Graham Seyffert Senior Software Engineer United States
Mathieu Daigle Canada
Mr Albert Orta Doctoral candidate Geography University College Dublin Ireland
Giacomo Tesio Senior Software Engineer Italy