Microsoft Employees Protest HoloLens Military Contract
A “global coalition” of approximately 50 Microsoft employees has written a letter addressed to CEO Satya Nadella and President and CLO Brad Smith protesting a deal made in November 2018 to supply Microsoft’s HoloLens mixed reality system to the US Army.
Microsoft has been no stranger to military applications of its HoloLens technology. In January 2017, the 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, deployed the headset alongside other sophisticated hardware and software to simulate realistic tactical scenarios during a training exercise. Marines found the application of HoloLens to be beneficial, likening it to “athletes watching [a] game film” to improve themselves.
This was not the first use of HoloLens for battle planning; the Australian Air Force, Israeli Defense Forces, and Ukrainian Armed Forces have all used the technology for similar purposes from 2016 through early 2017. However, last year’s deal marks HoloLens’ first major use by the US Armed Forces.
The deal made in November marks the first time HoloLens has been considered for a front-line battlefield application by individual infantrymen. The US Army’s bid called for a wide variety of features, including night- and thermal-imaging, communication, targeting, threat recognition, vital sign sensing, hearing protection, among others designed to “increase lethality by enhancing the ability to detect, decide and engage before the enemy.” This system will be known in Army service as the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS.
While Microsoft is currently in the prototyping stage, the contract could lead to over 100,000 IVAS headsets purchased by the Army, which is about twice the number of total headsets sold in spring 2018. A Microsoft spokesman said that this deal “extends our longstanding, trusted relationship with the Department of Defense to this new area.”
Employees of the tech giant have had a history of protesting Microsoft’s government contracts. In October 2018, anonymous employees published an op-ed urging the company to not bid for the Department of Defense’s Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) project, a multibillion-dollar effort to improve the DoD’s cloud computing capabilities.
These employees have said that they “don’t believe that what [they] build should be used for waging war,” and that those working for all tech companies should “act according to [their] principles,” citing Google’s decision to withdraw from the JEDI bid after significant pressure from employees. Microsoft did not back down from the bid and is awaiting the DoD’s review on JEDI, which had been delayed due to the government shutdown.
This most recent protest declares that “intent to harm is not an acceptable use of our technology,” and outlines a list of three demands. Firstly, they wish to see the IVAS contract canceled. Secondly, they want Microsoft to cease developing weapons technologies of any kind, with an accompanying acceptable-use policy solidifying that commitment. Thirdly, they call for the appointment of an independent and external ethics review board to ensure compliance with the aforementioned policy.
President and CLO Brad Smith previously stated that those concerned with the ethics of their work “would be allowed to move to other work within the company.” However, the protestors believe this to not be sufficient as employees have no control over how their products are used. Those who had worked on HoloLens believe it to have been intended for peaceful, productive purposes, but they now find themselves “implicated as war profiteers,” according to the authors.
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella defended the company’s decision to continue supplying IVAS to the US military. At the Mobile World Congress, the world’s largest exhibition for the mobile industry, he stated: “We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy.”