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Top Marine tries HoloLens
Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller uses a HoloLens augmented-reality system to manipulate virtual objects during a 2017 demonstration at Camp Foster on Okinawa. (U.S. Marine Photo / Tayler P. Schwamb)

A group of Microsoft employees called on the company to drop its $480 million contract to outfit the U.S. Army with 100,000 HoloLens “mixed reality” headsets, the latest example of internal strife over tech giants’ work for military and law enforcement agencies.

In the letter, first reported on and verified by The Washington Post, the group says it represents “a global coalition of Microsoft workers” who don’t want to see the teams that built HoloLens become “implicated as war profiteers.” The group wrote that the company needs to do a better job informing engineers about what their work will be used for.

“We are alarmed that Microsoft is working to provide weapons technology to the U.S. Military, helping one country’s government ‘increase lethality’ using tools we built,” the employees wrote in the letter addressed to CEO Satya Nadella and President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith. “We did not sign up to develop weapons, and we demand a say in how our work is used.”

The letter was tweeted by an account called Microsoft Workers 4 Good.

Microsoft issued the following statement in response to the letter:

“We gave this issue careful consideration and outlined our perspective in an October 2018 blog. We always appreciate feedback from employees and provide many avenues for their voices to be heard. In fact, we heard from many employees throughout the fall. As we said then, we’re committed to providing our technology to the U.S. Department of Defense, which includes the U.S. Army under this contract. As we’ve also said, we’ll remain engaged as an active corporate citizen in addressing the important ethical and public policy issues relating to AI and the military.”

Microsoft beat out several other suitors to win the contract, including Magic Leap. According to documents for the Army’s Integrated Visual Augmentation System project, the goal is to “manufacture a single platform that soldiers can use to fight, rehearse, and train. This platform will provide increased lethality, mobility, and situational awareness.”

The letter says Microsoft has previously licensed technology to the military, and HoloLens has been used for training and simulations in the past. But this contract is the first time, the employees say, that Microsoft has “crossed the line into weapons development.”

The deal comes as Microsoft received internal pushback on some of its other government work. Microsoft is in the running for a $10 billion Pentagon cloud contract. Smith authored a blog post last October defending its pursuit of the contract, claiming that technologists should be involved in government adoption of new innovations to ensure they are not misused.

Employees and shareholders at big tech companies have been active in calling out their employers over contracts with law enforcement. A group of Amazon shareholders last month called on the company to stop selling its facial recognition software to government agencies until the board has determined that the technology doesn’t pose risks to civil and human rights. Google opted not to continue a contract with the Department of Defense following employee unrest over the project — an attempt to use artificial intelligence to better identify the targets of drone strikes.

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