Microsoft U.S. military contract draws backlash from employees

If you've ever read or seen Ender’s Game, then the concept of using video games as a form of warfare may not be foreign to you. Since their inception, the presence of violence in video games have inspired all sorts of concerns: do games incite violence in children? Are children who play violent games becoming desensitized to violence? Or could war, real-life war, become nothing more than a video game, as in Ender’s Game?

Whether you believe it could happen or not, as of Friday, Feb. 22, some employees at Microsoft think it might be more truth than fiction. In a letter written to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, around 50 workers demanded that the company break off a contract with the U.S. Army that provided the military with HoloLens augmented reality headsets.

The concern was that the HoloLens could turn warfare into a “simulated ‘video game,’ further distancing soldiers from… the reality of bloodshed.” Indeed, according to research by The Washington Post, the military planned to use augmented reality to “supercharge” its soldiers; they hoped soldiers could use the headsets for navigation, identify hostile threats (including explosives), and even track biometrics.

This is not the first time Microsoft has dealt with internal strife over their decades-long dealings with the military: in June of 2018, workers demanded via an open letter that Microsoft back out of a contract to provide Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) with cloud-computing and AI software. In that letter, they wrote that they represented a “growing movement” of workers who believe their work should be “used for good, not for harm.” Similarly, the most recent letter was titled “HoloLens for good, not war,” posted by the Microsoft Workers 4 Good group.

The heart of the matter can be summed up in this line: “as employees and shareholders we do not want to become war profiteers.” Employees feel that Microsoft is in a position to make a choice, determining the morality and ethics of the company. The vision of the HoloLens was to create a device that could help people build, learn, and play. But when used as a tool for war, that vision is tainted.

While employees who are uncomfortable working on a project due to ethical reasons can transfer to other projects within the company, the Microsoft Workers 4 Good believe that it ignores the key issue: employees are not “properly informed of the use of their work.”

Although it is unlikely that Microsoft will pull out of a $479 million contract at the behest of a handful of employees, the protest still sets an unusual precedent in an industry ruled by tech giants. Historically, workers at companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Google have had little impact on what was done with the products they helped make.

In recent years, however, this trend has started to shift. Amazon is a notable (and recent) example: after choosing to build their second headquarters in Long Island City, the company was forced to look elsewhere after local workers protested. Additionally, a Google employee walkout and an open letter at Amazon against military research have seen some success in influencing company decisions.

Moving forward, it’s possible that the rising activism seen across the industry will inspire people to make their voices heard. Likewise, as tech giants feel a growing pressure to respect the wishes of their employees, petitions and open letters like these might start to bear more weight.