Microsoft Workers Call on Company to Cancel Military Contract

Some Microsoft workers are protesting a military contract for the company’s Holo Lens displays. Shown here is a South By Southwest conference attendee wearing a Holo Lens headset in Austin Texas in 2018

'We won't be war profiteers': Microsoft workers protest $480m army contract

Microsoft workers are calling on their employer to cancel a $480m contract to provide the USA army with augmented reality (AR) headsets, saying they "do not want to become war profiteers".

The staffers stressed that the company's deal "has crossed the line" into arms development for the first time, adding the use of HoloLens, stipulated by the contract terms, "is created to help people kill", employees wrote in a Friday open letter directed at Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and President Brad Smith. "We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used", the letter adds.

"We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used", reads a petition being circulated inside the company, a copy of which was provided to the Guardian on condition of anonymity.

The public has come up with a variety of reactions to Microsoft employees questioning the visual augmentation contract from last November, whereby their top-notch engineering products would be delivered to the battlefield.

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The 100 or more workers who have signed the statement want the contract cancelled. "As we've also said, we'll remain engaged as an active corporate citizen in addressing the important ethical and public policy issues relating to AI and the military".

The letter goes on to claim Microsoft's HoloLens technology will end up turning warfare into a "video game", which will further distance soldiers from the grim reality of war.

The letter goes on to say that Microsoft plans to use HoloLens, its augmented reality headset, for this objective.

In response to the letter, Microsoft told PCMag: "We always appreciate feedback from employees and have many avenues for employee voices to be heard". The employee protest letter Friday acknowledged some of those efforts but said more needs to be done to inform engineers of the intent of the software they're building. We are not going to withdraw from the future.

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The internal revolt at Microsoft highlights the heightened activism among employees at tech giants and follows similar uprisings at Amazon and Google, where workers have bristled over their companies' business relationships with the US military or law enforcement agencies.

In addition to cancelling the contract, the employees call for Microsoft to publish a policy explicitly laying out the acceptable uses for its products, and to appoint an independent ethics board to enforce it. A staff petition at Google a year ago pushed the company to retreat from a Pentagon contract that could have totaled up to $250 million.

"Brad Smith's suggestion that employees concerned about working on unethical projects "would be allowed to move to other work within the company" ignores the problem that workers are not properly informed of the use of their work. There are many engineers who contributed to HoloLens before this contract even existed, believing it would be used to help architects and engineers build buildings and cars, to help teach people how to perform surgery or play the piano, to push the boundaries of gaming, and to connect with the Mars Rover (RIP)". In a document shared with companies that bid on the contract, the Army said it wanted the devices to include night vision and thermal sensing, as well as technology that could be used to monitor for concussions.

They said that Microsoft's mission is to empower every person and organisation on the planet to do more.

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"First, we believe that the people who defend our country need and deserve our support".

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