Amid outrage over child separations, critics question Microsoft's ties with ICE

Following similar concerns over Google and Amazon's government work, Microsoft said that its work with ICE is unrelated to the forcible separation of children from their families.

Company is the latest tech giant to reckon with the moral and ethical implications of its government work

Microsoft has said that its work with ICE is unrelated to the forcible separation of children from their families, but not whether it would continue to provide its services to ICE. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Amid outrage at the separation of children from their asylum-seeking parents crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, a Microsoft partnership with the government agency overseeing the "zero tolerance" policy has come under scrutiny — including backlash from the company's own employees.

The Microsoft division responsible for selling cloud computing services to government clients announced in January that it had been certified to handle sensitive data for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the relationship largely escaped notice until recent days, fuelled by reports that children separated from their families were being held by the government in cages.

More than 2,000 children were separated between May 5 and June 9, according to figures released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Gizmodo subsequently reported that Microsoft employees just learning of the partnership have expressed their concern internally — and that some have even considered leaving the company. Microsoft has since said that its work with ICE is unrelated to the forcible separation of children from their families, but not whether it would continue to provide its services to ICE.

This is merely the latest example of a tech company being forced to reckon with the moral and ethical implications of its government work.

In May, Google employees pushed back against a contract with the Pentagon to provide artificial intelligence services for use in analyzing drone imagery. Gizmodo reported that a dozen employees resigned in protest, while nearly 4,000 signed an internal petition voicing their opposition to the deal. It forced the company to be more explicit about the sort of AI contracts it would not pursue.

Not long after, Amazon came under scrutiny for providing facial recognition services to some U.S. police departments. In response, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with some Amazon shareholders, have asked CEO Jeff Bezos not to sell the technology to law enforcement.

As many big tech companies' business models rely increasingly on the sale of subscriptions and services, rather than standalone products — which necessitate ongoing relationships with customers — it has become more difficult for companies to ignore how their products are being used.

Coupled with an heightened awareness of the immense influence and power that a handful of big tech companies have over our lives, those companies have found themselves being held to higher moral and ethical standards than in the past.

After the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, for example, employees across Silicon Valley called on their companies to oppose the controversial travel ban targeting residents of seven predominantly Muslim countries. Thousands also signed a pledge refusing to participate in the creation of database software that could be used to identify Muslims living in the U.S.

Tech companies have long wrapped their efforts in world-changing rhetoric. But employees are increasingly questioning whether that change — in this case, the potential outcome of Microsoft's relationship with ICE — is always for the better.

About the Author

Matthew Braga

Senior Technology Reporter

Matthew Braga is the senior technology reporter for CBC News, where he covers stories about how data is collected, used, and shared. If you have a tip, you can contact this reporter securely using Signal or WhatsApp at +1 416 316 4872, or via email at matthew.braga@cbc.ca. For particularly sensitive messages or documents, consider using Secure Drop, an anonymous, confidential system for sharing encrypted information with CBC News.