A group of Google workers and Palestinian rights activists are calling on the tech giant to end its involvement in the secretive Project Nimbus cloud computing contract, which involves the provision of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools to the Israeli government.
Calls for Google to end its involvement in the contract follow claims made by Ariel Koren, a product marketing manager at Google for Education since 2015 and member of the Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), that she was pressured into resigning as retaliation for her vocal opposition to the deal. She has since accused the tech giant of “complicity in Israeli apartheid”.
Announced by the Israeli Finance Ministry in April 2021, the $1.2bn Nimbus contract is “intended to provide the government, the defense establishment and others with an all-encompassing cloud solution”, and is being jointly built by Google and Amazon.
While it is still unclear exactly how the Israeli government will use Nimbus, training documents and videos obtained by The Intercept in July 2022 indicate it would give it capabilities for facial detection, automated image categorisation, object tracking, and even sentiment analysis that claims to assess the emotional content of pictures, speech and writing.
In 2021, B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International all formally accused the Israeli government of committing crimes against humanity by maintaining an apartheid system against Palestinians.
The Google employees and rights activists have said they fear how the technology will be used against Palestinians, and highlighted that Google’s own AI principles state the company will not design or deploy AI technologies that are likely to cause harm, violate international norms against surveillance, or violate international law or human rights.
According to Koren, who is Jewish, after publicly speaking out against Google’s involvement in Nimbus, she was told by her bosses in November 2021 that her role had been moved to Sao Paulo in Brazil, and that she could either commit to the relocation or lose her job.
“I was told the forced relocation was based on business priorities, however the Sao Paulo office was still working from home and there was no demonstrable need for me to be physically located in Sao Paulo, much less in the middle of a pandemic,” she wrote in an open letter published 30 August 2022, adding that while Google’s human resources team did eventually acknowledge to her that the relocation was “improper and harmful”, it continues to claim there is “no evidence of retaliation”.
In response to Computer Weekly’s questions, a Google spokesperson claimed the company’s policies clearly prohibit retaliation in the workplace: “We thoroughly investigated this employee’s claim, as we do when any concerns are raised, and as we’ve stated for many months, our investigation found there was no retaliation here. A government agency also dismissed this case when the employee filed a claim alleging she experienced retaliation.”
The spokesperson added: “We are proud that Google Cloud has been selected by the Israeli government to provide public cloud services to help digitally transform the country. The project includes making Google Cloud Platform available to government agencies for everyday workloads such as finance, healthcare, transportation and education, but it is not directed to highly sensitive or classified workloads.”
Koren, however, maintained: “Instead of listening to employees who want Google to live up to its ethical principles, Google is aggressively pursuing military contracts and stripping away the voices of its employees through a pattern of silencing and retaliation towards me and many others.”
Part of the issue, says Koren, is that Google’s management is weaponising its diversity and inclusion systems by only listening to and taking into account the views of a particular set of Jewish workers that support the actions of the Israeli government.
Koren claimed while this group of Jewish workers – self-described as “Jewglers” – was ostensibly set up to support “all Jewish people at Google”, in practice it functions “as an outlet to drive forward right-wing ideologies under the guise of promoting diversity”.
She further claimed members of this group were involved in censoring and harassing other employees with different, more critical views on the actions of the Israeli government, which included sending “aggressive messages to our Arab and Muslim colleagues”.
At one point, Koren and 626 other Google workers wrote to the company’s executives about Jewglers’ inherent bias, but received no response. Instead, Koren said Google’s management decided to meet with the Jewglers steering committee.
“In spite of widespread dissent from progressive Jews, the company was platforming Jewglers as the sole authority on Jewish identity at Google,” said Koren.
Computer Weekly contacted Google about its alleged tendency to side with pro-Israeli government Jewish voices over other, more critical perspectives – as well as the alleged conducted of the Jewglers group – but received no response on this point.
In response to Koren’s resignation, the AWU is also calling on Google executives to divest from Project Nimbus and to stop suppressing the freedom of speech and organising efforts of workers raising ethical concerns.
“It is the right of all Alphabet workers to voice our concerns and objections to projects like Nimbus and organise against them internally, completely free from fear of retaliation,” said Parul Koul, executive chair of the AWU. “Thousands of Google workers have previously organised against military contracts, like Project Maven, and we deserve to do the same now and in the future. Ariel should never have faced this retaliation and harassment. She should never have been forced into a position where resigning was her only option.”
More than 700 Google employees and 25,000 others have now signed a petition calling on the company to rescind Koren’s relocation order.
This is not the first time employees have voiced their opposition to Google’s role in Nimbus. In October 2021, for example, workers from both Google and Amazon signed a letter condemning their involvement in Project Nimbus, which they claimed “allows for further surveillance of and unlawful data collection on Palestinians, and facilitates expansion of Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land”. The letter was signed by more than 90 Google and 300 Amazon workers, all signed anonymously, “because we fear retaliation”.
In May 2021, however, The Times of Israel reported that the Israeli government’s contracts with Google and Amazon bar the firms from denying services to particular government entities. The Finance Ministry said this would ensure continuity of service, even if the companies come under pressure in other jurisdictions to boycott the Israeli government.