Microsoft staff urge Satya Nadella to end ICE contract

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Microsoft's employees have written an open letter demanding the company cancel its contract with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), as tech leaders condemned the US government's policy on separating migrant families at the US-Mexico border.

More than 100 employees have put their names to a letter protesting the software maker's $19.4 million contract with ICE, which uses Azure's data processing and AI capabilities - something Microsoft previously said it "is proud to support".

ICE's controversial immigration programme sees children separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, a policy that has generated a public outcry. While Microsoft has said it "isn't aware" of any involvement of Azure in supporting this policy, its staff yesterday urged CEO Satya Nadella it to cancel the firm's contract.

"We believe that Microsoft must take an ethical stand, and put children and families above profits," the letter, published by The New York Times, read.

"Therefore, we ask that Microsoft cancel its contracts with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement immediately, including contracts with clients who support ICE. We also call on Microsoft to draft, publicize and enforce a clear policy stating that neither Microsoft nor its contractors will work with clients who violate international human rights law."

ICE uses Microsoft software to process data on edge devices and uses the firm's deep learning capabilities for facial recognition and identification. The employees told Nadella that Microsoft's ignorance of whether or not Azure is used in the separation policy is not enough. They wrote: "We are providing the technical undergirding in support of an agency that is actively enforcing this inhumane policy."

The internal letter added that these are "powerful capabilities" that are in the hands of an agency that has shown "repeated willingness to enact inhumane and cruel policies".

High profile figures from the tech industry also spoke out yesterday against ICE's policy. Apple chief executive Tim Cook told the Irish Times that the company would work with the US government to try and be a "constructive voice" on the issue.

"It's heartbreaking to see the images and hear the sounds of kids. Kids are the most vulnerable people in any society. I think that what's happening is inhumane, it needs to stop," he said.

Former Microsoft employee William Fitzgerald took to Twitter to condemn the company's work with ICE and accused them of "hiding behind code".

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, meanwhile, posted on his social network to say that "we need to stop this policy right now", while Google CEO Sundar Pichai tweeted: "The stories and images of families being separated at the border are gut-wrenching. Urging our government to work together to find a better, more humane way that is reflective of our values as a nation."

Google recently opted not to renew its contract to help the Department of Defense use AI for military purposes in an initiative called Project Maven after employees protested the tech giant's involvement.

19/06/2018: Microsoft's work with ICE sparks backlash among tech community

Microsoft is under pressure from the tech community to terminate a contract it holds with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), in light of the department's family separation policy.

A blog post published in January has resurfaced in the last couple of days, detailing how Microsoft "is proud to support" ICE's IT innovation aims through its Azure Government platform.

A protest is taking place later today outside Microsoft's DC office about the issue, and employees are being encouraged to speak out online.

Erica Baker, a senior engineering manager at Patreon, said on Twitter: "Friends who work for @Microsoft, FIGHT THIS. Make the biggest noise imaginable about it.

"Don't fall for the "all companies take government contracts" spin. Your company has THIS contract and is *proud* of it."

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A spokesperson for Microsoft said it's not working with ICE or US Customers and Border Protection "on any projects related to separating children from their families", and doesn't believe its Azure services are supporting such projects.

"As a company, Microsoft is dismayed by the forcible separation of children from their families at the border," the spokesperson added.

"We urge the administration to change its policy and Congress to pass legislation ensuring children are no longer separated from their families."

Its original blog post, written by Tom Keane, general manager at Microsoft, read: "ICE's decision to accelerate IT modernization using Azure Government will help them innovate faster while reducing the burden of legacy IT.

"The agency is currently implementing transformative technologies for homeland security and public safety, and we're proud to support this work with our mission-critical cloud."

This section was reportedly removed from the blog by an employee earlier in response to the social media outburst, but was later re-inserted.

Bobby Hellard

Bobby Hellard is ITPro's Reviews Editor and has worked on CloudPro and ChannelPro since 2018. In his time at ITPro, Bobby has covered stories for all the major technology companies, such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, and regularly attends industry-leading events such as AWS Re:Invent and Google Cloud Next.

Bobby mainly covers hardware reviews, but you will also recognise him as the face of many of our video reviews of laptops and smartphones.