‘I don’t wish to work for a army contractor’: Google, Amazon staff in Seattle protest cloud take care of Israel

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Protestors gathered in Seattle last week to voice concern about Google and Amazon’s cloud contract with the Israeli government. (Photo courtesy of local #NoTechForApartheid activists)

Aniran Chandravongsri, a Google Cloud software engineer who works in Seattle, says he isn’t interested in building products for the Israeli government.

Yet, he said, that may be what he has to do if Google continues with a $1.2 billion Israeli government and military contract, known as Project Nimbus, which both Google and Amazon agreed to last year.

Chandravongsri and other Google employees worry the contract will place in the hands of the Israeli government a wealth of sophisticated technologies that could be deployed against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.

“I don’t want to work for a military contractor,” said Chandravongsri, a 30-year-old who helped organize a Seattle rally opposing Google’s and Amazon’s involvement in Project Nimbus.

Google and Amazon employees joined with pro-Palestinian and other groups last week to protest outside the South Lake Union offices of both companies. About 100 people gathered in front of Google’s building at 1000 Mercer Street and chanted for Israel to abandon its “imperialist” occupation of the West Bank.

(Photo courtesy of local #NoTechForApartheid activists)

Some protesters carried signs reading “Seattle says: No tech for surveillance” and “Tech workers say no to tech for Israel Apartheid.” The protesters, including some from the Alphabet Workers Union, then marched to a small Terry Avenue square on the nearby Amazon campus. Several Google security guards kept watch.

Similar anti-Nimbus protests unfolded in New York City, San Francisco and Durham, N.C. A statement released by the protesters said the demonstrations “represent a rapidly growing movement of tech workers taking public action against these contracts.”

The rift over Project Nimbus underscores the high-stakes battle between juggernaut tech companies for lucrative contracts to provide governments with cloud and artificial intelligence in the midst of tough questions about how that technology gets used.

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It also raises the question of how far big tech companies are willing to go to stanch dissent among their workers.

“Google is a much different place and a much more closed culture than it used to be – and much less respecting of dissent,” Chandravongsri said. The company, he added, wants “to go for some controversial contracts and make money in controversial ways, and they don’t want to deal with employee pushback about it anymore.”

Google didn’t respond to a GeekWire request for comment. 

Aniran Chandravongsri, a Google cloud software engineer in Seattle, speaks out against a contract Google and Amazon struck to provide technology to the Israeli government during a Sept. 8 rally at Google’s building in South Lake Union, Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Tony Lystra)

The protests come just weeks after Ariel Koren, a 28-year-old Google marketing manager of seven years in San Francisco who has vocally opposed Project Nimbus, quit late last month, accusing the company of retaliation against her activism.

Project Nimbus opponents say thousands, including many at Google and Amazon, have signed petitions in support of Koren and in opposition of the Israeli contract. Google’s workers have raised concerns about Project Nimbus during the company’s all-hands meetings, Chandravongsri said, “and those have kind of gone unanswered.”

“Google is a much different place and a much more closed culture than it used to be – and much less respecting of dissent.”

In late August, a group of Google employees posted a YouTube video denouncing Project Nimbus and accusing Google of “anti-Palestinian bias” and “a larger company pattern of stifling concerned workers’ voices.”

Google hasn’t explicitly said what technologies are included in Project Nimbus. A leaked Google slide deck for training Nimbus users suggests the program technologies capable of recognizing faces, tracking objects, categorizing images and even analyzing sentiment and emotion behind writing, speech and pictures.

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Chandravongsri said, “I don’t think so,” when asked if he’s been personally assigned to work on military-grade cloud services for Project Nimbus.

Still, he said, much of what he builds for Google is suited to a broad array of uses, “so I don’t know if my labor can be used to eventually work on something for the military.”

Google has already scuttled one of its military contracts after employees protested, and Project Nimbus opponents hope that precedent will weigh in their favor when it comes to the Israeli government contract as well.

In 2018, the company faced a backlash from thousands of employees, some of whom resigned in protest, over a Pentagon contract known as Project Maven, under which Google provided AI to interpret drone surveillance footage. Google workers said at the time the technology could be used to sharpen the accuracy of drone missile strikes. The company’s executives eventually declined to renew the Pentagon contract.

The cloud business grew a whopping 37% in 2021 to $178 billion. And the sector’s top three players — Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and Google, respectively — are fighting hard for market share. 

The U.S. Department of Defense, meanwhile, has been wooing major cloud providers as the U.S. shifts its military strategy toward the use of AI.

In a demonstration of how hard-fought the contracts can be, Microsoft won a decade-long $10 billion Pentagon contract known as JEDI in 2019, but the Pentagon squashed the program after Amazon sued. Now, Google and other major cloud providers are expected to bid on JEDI’s successor, which is estimated to be worth $9 billion.

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