Immigration nonprofit rejects Salesforce money as tech faces ethics backlash over borders

Immigration nonprofit rejects Salesforce money as tech faces ethics backlash over borders

Originally published by USA Today

A Texas nonprofit that helps immigrants has rejected a $250,000 donation from Salesforce, saying it won’t be part of what it calls an attempt by the company to buy its way out of an ethical quandary over its contracts with U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The decision is part of the unprecedented backlash tech companies are facing – particularly from their own employees – over work with government agencies that these employees say violate ethical standards. In recent months, employees at Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Salesforce have pressured their senior management to drop deals with government agencies.

The immigration nonprofit's decision follows an open letter to CEO Marc Benioff in June that was signed by more than 650 of Salesforce’s own staff, asking it to cancel its contract to supply software and tools to manage border activities to Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Salesforce said it doesn’t work with CBP regarding separating families and kept the contract. At the same time, it pledged to donate $1 million to help families affected by the Trump administration’s "zero tolerance" immigration policy that resulted in authorities separating thousands of children from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

San Antonio-based Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) was offered $250,000 as part of that pledge. In a letter to Salesforce on Monday, it refused the money.

“Your software provides an operational backbone for the agency, and thus does directly support CBP in implementing its inhumane and immoral policies,"  the nonprofit’s executive director Jonathan Ryan wrote in a letter made public Thursday. "There is no way around this, and there is no room for hair splitting when children are being brutally torn away from parents.”

RAICES, which has five offices in Texas, was the beneficiary of a Silicon Valley couple's viral Facebook fundraiser that raised more than $20 million to help separated immigrant families.

This month, Benioff tweeted that the company doesn't work with CBP regarding separation of families, although the agency is a customer. "We don't have an agreement with ICE," he wrote. Salesforce didn't have additional comment.

The Salesforce issue is only the latest in a series of public clashes between tech employees and employers over whether those companies should do work that aids what some see as draconian policies or that could lead to outcomes that could curb civil liberties. These include fears over drones governed by artificial intelligence and facial recognition software that scans public gatherings and protests.

Technology companies are in the crosshairs both because their workforces tend to lean liberal politically and because their products are the engines that underpin much of modern life.

“Many people work in tech because it has unprecedented power to change lives for the better,” said Ed Lazowska, chair of the school of computer science and engineering at the University of Washington.

The job market is also encouraging these workforces to have a voice. They can make demands that workers in other fields can't simply because of the tremendous battle for tech talent, especially at top companies.

“Companies don’t want to lose them. The employees know they have the power, and they’re making use of it,” said John Hooker, a professor of business ethics and social responsibility at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.

In their letter to their CEO, the Salesforce employees said the company "cannot cede responsibility for the use of the technology we create – particularly when we have reason to believe that it is being used to aid practices so irreconcilable to our values.”

Values are a concept that has come up repeatedly among tech workers in the past several months, especially around the issue of family separations at the border.

This spring, more than 4,600 Google employees signed a petition asking that the company not renew a contract it had with the Department of Defense for a data analysis program for drone imagery. It was part of a larger DoD program called Project Maven that used artificial intelligence to help soldiers in combat.

At least 13 Google employees resigned in protest, in part because the data analysis was to help classify images in drone footage, which could then potentially be used to identify targets for attacks. In June, the company announced it would not renew its contract on the project.

Microsoft has been under pressure over a contract it has with Immigration and Customs Enforcement for email and calendar services. A blog post by the company initially made it sound as if facial recognition software might be among the supported services, though the company later clarified it was not.

More than 100 Microsoft employees wrote an open letter protesting the software company’s contract with ICE and asking it to no longer work with the agency. The letter was posted on Microsoft’s internal message board.

“We are part of a growing movement, comprised of many across the industry who recognize the grave responsibility that those creating powerful technology have to ensure what they build is used for good, and not for harm,” it read.

Late last month a group of Amazon employees wrote a public letter to CEO Jeff Bezos asking that the company stop selling its facial recognition software to law enforcement companies due to concerns that it could be used to infringe on privacy.

These protests are part of a groundswell of dissent from both within and without tech companies to get them to cut ties with agencies that they see as violating human rights.The power technology wields makes it especially important at this moment in time, said Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights group.

“We want technology to benefit the world, rather than to enable policies that profoundly violate people’s human rights,” Greer said.

Fight for the Future was part of a coalition Tuesday of 20 organizations, mostly non-profits, that are Salesforce customers and who called on the company to “drop the contract.”

Workers at tech companies are especially galled when the top brass of these companies speak out against government policies but continue to collect money from contracts that potentially aid them.

"That raises people's hypocrisy meter" and makes it harder to recruit talent, Greer said.

For example, Salesforce's Benioff has tweeted repeatedly about his distress over the administration's policies towards immigrants.

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