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What is Project Nimbus, and why are Google workers protesting Israel deal?

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Google employees based in the United States have staged protests at the tech giant’s offices in New York City, California and Seattle to oppose a $1.2bn contract with the Israeli government.

Known as Project Nimbus, the joint contract between Google and Amazon signed in 2021 aims to provide cloud computing infrastructure, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technology services to the Israeli government and its military, which has faced condemnation for its war on Gaza, described by United Nations experts and several countries as a “genocide”.

Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, overwhelmingly children and women, and destroyed vast swaths of the Palestinian coastal enclave since it launched the military offensive last October. The country has justified the bombardment, saying it is targeting Hamas fighters who carried out a deadly attack on October 7.

Here is a look at why tech workers are opposing military collaborations amid the misuse of AI and other technologies in conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, among others.

Why are Google employees protesting against Project Nimbus?

Last week’s sit-ins in New York and California’s Sunnyvale were led by No Tech For Apartheid, which has been organising Google employees against Project Nimbus since 2021. Employees are opposing their employer’s ties with Israel, which is also facing a genocide charge for its war on Gaza in the International Court of Justice.

Tech workers are demanding that they have the right to know how their labour is going to be used. With little clarity about the project, they fear the technology might be used for harm. Workers at Amazon and Facebook parent Meta have also clashed with their employers over war links.

“It is impossible to feel excited and energised to work when you know your company is providing the Israeli government products that are helping it commit atrocities in Palestine,” said, Tina Vachovsky, staff software engineer at Google, in a testimonial published on the No Tech Apartheid website.

According to a 2021 report by the US-based news outlet The Intercept, Google is offering advanced AI capabilities to Israel, which could harvest data for facial recognition and object tracking as part of Project Nimbus.

Activists and academics have been alarmed by Israel’s use of AI to target Palestinians, while legal scholars say the use of AI in war violates international laws.

Nine employees were arrested on April 16 for staging a sit-in at the Google office in New York [No Tech for Apartheid via Anadolu]

“There’s actually a shocking lack of transparency around exactly what this project covers, outside of providing interoperable, comprehensive cloud computing, which is essentially systems of data storage, data management and sharing,” Ramesh Srinivasan, professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), told Al Jazeera.

“Data for the Israeli governments, of course, is likely to extend to the Israeli [army]. So it’s a project that marks and sort of highlights the direct connections that big technology companies in the United States have, not only to the so-called military-industrial complex, but to directly aiding and abetting the Israeli government.”

In a statement, the tech giant said that the Nimbus contract “is not directed at highly sensitive, classified, or military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services”. The tech behemoth says it works with several governments around the world, including Israel.

The company fired at least 28 employees last week for “violating Google’s code of conduct” and “policy on harassment, discrimination and retaliation”. In addition, at least nine Google employees were arrested for the sit-ins at its offices in New York and Sunnyvale.

Google CEO Sundar Pichai issued a veiled warning in a blog post last week.

“We have a culture of vibrant, open discussion that enables us to create amazing products and turn great ideas into action. That’s important to preserve. But ultimately we are a workplace and our policies and expectations are clear: this is a business, and not a place to act in a way that disrupts coworkers or makes them feel unsafe, to attempt to use the company as a personal platform, or to fight over disruptive issues or debate politics. This is too important a moment as a company for us to be distracted,” he wrote.

But tech workers have not been fazed by the warning. Mohammad Khatami, a Google software engineer who was arrested for participating in the sit-in in New York, told US outlet Democracy Now that workers were arrested for “speaking out against the use of our technology to power the first AI-powered genocide”.

Google fired another 20 protesters this week, according to the No Tech For Apartheid group, bringing the total number of people sacked to about 50.

“Google’s aims are clear: the corporation is attempting to quash dissent, silence its workers, and reassert its power over them,” Jane Chung, a spokesperson for No Tech For Apartheid, said on Tuesday.

Google said it fired the additional workers after its investigation gathered details from coworkers who were “physically disrupted” and it identified employees who used masks and did not carry their staff badges to hide their identities. It did not specify how many were fired.

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Is there a history of tech workers opposing collaborations with the military?

This is not the first time Amazon and Google employees have voiced their displeasure with Project Nimbus. Last October, Amazon and Google employees expressed their concerns anonymously in an open letter published by British news outlet The Guardian:

“We are writing as Google and Amazon employees of conscience from diverse backgrounds. We believe that the technology we build should work to serve and uplift people everywhere, including all of our users. As workers who keep these companies running, we are morally obligated to speak out against violations of these core values. For this reason, we are compelled to call on the leaders of Amazon and Google to pull out of Project Nimbus and cut all ties with the Israeli military. So far, more than 90 workers at Google and more than 300 at Amazon have signed this letter internally. We are anonymous because we fear retaliation.”

In 2018, thousands of Google employees protested against a contract with the Pentagon known as Project Maven. In 2017, Google partnered with the Pentagon to use the company’s AI technology to analyse drone surveillance footage.

In February, roughly 30 activists gathered around the entrance to OpenAI’s San Francisco office, due to the company quietly removing a ban on “military and warfare” from its usage policies the previous month. OpenAI would eventually confirm it was working with the US Department of Defense on open-source cybersecurity software solutions.

On March 4, at the Mind the Tech conference in New York, Google employee Eddie Hatfield stood up in a conference room and shouted, “I am a Google Cloud software engineer, and I refuse to build technology that powers genocide, apartheid, or surveillance!”

Hatfield was fired days after interrupting the managing director of Google Israel, Barak Regev. This would eventually set the stage for the recent protests against Project Nimbus.

In December of last year, in response to Project Nimbus, 1,700 employees sent a petition to Amazon CEO Andy Jassy stating that “by providing a cloud ecosystem for the Israeli public sector, Amazon is bolstering the artificial intelligence and surveillance capabilities of the Israeli military used to repress Palestinian activists and impose a brutal siege on Gaza”.

Rights organisations – Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International – have accused Israel of committing international crimes of apartheid against Palestinians. An earlier UN report had accused Israel of establishing an apartheid regime.

Which other tech companies have ties with the Israeli military?

It’s not just cloud computing tech companies providing contracts to the Israeli military. In a report published last week by Brown University,  Roberto J Gonzalez, professor of cultural anthropology at San Jose State University, describes how the US public company Palantir Technologies is involved with Israel.

“For years, Palantir has had multiple contracts with the Israeli [army], and it extended its support for Israel after its war against Hamas began in October 2023,” Gonzalez said in comments in published on April 17.

Palantir, the Denver-based data analysis firm that provides military institutions with artificial intelligence, was co-founded by right-wing billionaire Peter Thiel. Palantir, which has worked with the US National Security Agency, has previously provided tech solutions for the Israeli military.

Google employees protest in front of the New York office
Google employees protest in front of the company’s New York office on April 17 [No Tech for Apartheid via Anadolu]

American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an international organisation that works to challenge injustices globally, has maintained a directory of “C­o­m­p­a­n­i­e­s P­r­o­f­i­t­i­n­g f­r­o­m I­s­r­a­e­l­’­s 2­0­2­3­-­2­0­2­4 a­t­t­a­c­k­s o­n G­a­z­a”.

More than 50 companies hailing from the US, China, Germany and the United Kingdom have been listed.

“This is a form of corporate welfare not only for the largest weapons manufacturers, like Lockheed Martin, RTX, Boeing, and General Dynamics, which have seen their stock prices skyrocket, but also for companies that are not typically seen as part of the weapons industry, such as Caterpillar, Ford, and Toyota,” the AFSC Action Center for Corporate Accountability states.

What do we know about collaborations between tech companies and armies around the world?

The US military and spy agencies signed contracts worth at least $53bn between 2019 and 2022, according to the report published by Brown University on April 17.

In December of 2022, the Pentagon awarded Google, Oracle, Amazon Web Services and Microsoft a $9bn contract for a top-secret cloud environment.

US-based companies like Clearview AI, based out of New York City, provide facial recognition software to help Ukraine identify Russian soldiers and officials who have participated in the military invasion. Ukraine was given free access to Clearview AI software starting in 2022.

The same report also shows an increasing role of big tech in the military-industrial complex.

“Although much of the Pentagon’s $886bn budget is spent on conventional weapon systems and goes to well-established defense giants such as Lockheed Martin, RTX, Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Boeing, and BAE Systems, a new political economy is emerging, driven by the imperatives of big tech companies, venture capital (VC), and private equity firms,” the report says.

Often, the introduction of new technologies can come at a terrible human cost if not properly tested and vetted.

“Everybody knows these AI systems will make mistakes … so that there will be wrongful deaths and wrongful assassinations as we’ve seen with so many civilian people in Gaza,” Srinivasan, the UCLA professor, says.

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