“No justice, no peace, tech workers are in the streets!” Those words echoed through the air outside Google’s New York City office as workers left for the day on Thursday evening. Outside, they faced a street packed with dozens of Google and Amazon employees opposed to Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion cloud computing project funded by the the government of Israel.
While government tech contracts are usually awarded to a single company, that’s not the case with Project Nimbus, which has Google and Amazon collaborating on the multi-year project. The two companies beat out a potential partnership by Microsoft and Oracle, according to an announcement from Israel’s Finance Ministry earlier this year.
Organizers at Google and Amazon have spent the better part of a year pushing back against the contact, both internally and through calls to the public, over concerns the Israeli military could weaponize the firms’ respective tools to be used to surveil or oppress Palestinians.
“Project Nimbus is neither Google’s first or last attempt to try and become a military contractor,” Google software engineer Gabrel Schubiner said during the rally in New York. “Please help us in keeping Google from becoming complicit from apartheid.”
Protestors in New York were just a portion of the tech workers around the country voicing their opposition to Project Nimbus: Parallel demonstrations occurred throughout the day at Google’s San Francisco, Seattle, and Durham, North Carolina offices.
Collectively, the movement represents some of the most organized internal dissent to a major tech contract since Google’s short lived Project Maven AI deal with the U.S. Department of Defense. But unlike previous efforts, workers taking to the streets Thursday demonstrated a willingness to unify across multiple companies and states under one single banner.
“This is a monumental moment,” one organizer said at the rally’s onset. “Now is the time to fight back, to make sure the technology we build is for good.”
Google, for its part, vigorously disagrees with the protestor’s characterization of the contract. In a statement sent to Gizmodo by email, a Google spokesperson defended the company’s decision to partner with the Israeli government and said workers on the ground we mischaracterizing the technology.
“As we have stated many times, the contract is for workloads running on our commercial platform by Israeli government ministries such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education,” the spokesperson said. “Today’s protest group is misrepresenting the contract—our work is not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.”
Though Thursday’s New York City protest occurred beneath a towering white Google logo, Amazon workers were also represented. “There is no way for Amazon and Google to justify a contract with a government that has violated numerous human rights and continues to oppress Palestinian lives,” Bathool Syed, an Amazon worker, told Gizmodo.
Protestors were joined on stage by a number of activists advocating for Palestinian rights, and against Big Tech’s use of so-called surveillance tools. One of those activists was Linda Sarsour, a veteran Palestinian-American activist, who formerly served as co-chair of the Women’s March.
“We are asking a corporation to not violate human rights,” Sarsour said. “We aren’t asking you to do anything that you shouldn’t already be doing. We are saying do not be complicit in violating human rights.”
Amazon did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Workers aren’t the only ones putting pressure on Google and Amazon. In recent months, some of the company’s key shareholders have also expressed concerns about Nimbus.
In an email to Gizmodo, Kiran Aziz, head of investments at KLP, Norway’s largest pension fund, said she is “deeply concerned” about the project. KLP is an investor in both Google and Amazon, and recently divested from Motorola over its alleged contribution to surveillance in the occupied Palestinian Territories.
“The human rights situation is worsening with the Israeli government shutting down NGOs, expanding illegal settlements and increasing the killings of civilians including Palestinian children in the illegally Occupied Palestinian Territories,” Aziz said. “Google and Amazon should be aware of the risks and perform due diligence. KLP is writing to both of these corporations to demand transparency and to rescind Project Nimbus on the basis of the clear risks of violating basic human rights.”
Though there are few details known about how Israel plans to implement Project Nimbus, a July report from The Intercept cited internal training documents and videos which indicate part of the effort will provide the Israeli government with a “full suite of machine learning and AI tools” from the Google Cloud platform. The documents suggest that could give the government access to facial recognition, object tracking, automated image categorization, and so-called emotion recognition, among other tools.
Previous reports from The Washington Post indicated the Israeli military already maintains an extensive facial recognition program called “Blue Wolf,” which is used to track and survey Palestinians living in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. According to The Post, members of the military glibly refer to that database of faces as “Facebook for Palestinians.”
Last year multiple human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, took a major step and described the Israeli military’s actions in occupied territory as “crimes against humanity.” Then in October, hundreds of Google and Amazon workers signed an open letter published in The Guardian calling on their firms to “cut all ties with the Israeli military.”
“We believe that the technology we build should work to serve and uplift people everywhere, including all of our users,” the workers wrote. “As workers who keep these companies running, we are morally obligated to speak out against violations of these core values.”
The collective of Google and Amazon workers are hoping their day of action can reignite some of the fire felt in 2018, when a first of its kind tech worker movement forced Google to cancel Project Maven, an AI program intended to aid The U.S. Department of Defense’s drone capabilities.
Three months later, following reporting on the project from Gizmodo and other outlets, and growing internal dissent, around a dozen Google employees resigned from their positions in protest. Not long after that, Google backed down and said it would not seek a new contract once Project Maven expired.
One of the leading voices advocating against Project Maven at Google claims she was forced to resign from her job of seven years last week due to retaliation for her activism. In a previous interview with Gizmodo, Ariel Koren, the former Google marketing manager, described a climate of hostility towards pro-Palestinian voices. Koren and fellow activists sent numerous emails to Google officials voicing concerns over the firm’s continued ties with Israel and that those appeals went either unheard or ignored. Frustrated, Koren went public and helped drive multiple petitions calling on Google to abandon Nimbus. One of those petitions received signatures from more than 800 Google workers and 37,500 members of the public.
“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,” Koren wrote in an open letter days before her resignation.
Koren says that Google, a company once applauded by employees for its open communication regarding business decisions, began keeping more secrets around the time of Maven, adding to tensions around the government contract.
“Nimbus is a continuation of that pattern,” Koren said. “When Google launched Nimbus they were not forthcoming at all with their workforce. They were extremely secretive.”
That same pattern apparently played out last year when Google workers said they were blindsided by news the company was actively pursuing a new cloud contract with the Pentagon, this one referred to as “Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability.” That pursuit was never articulated to workers. A Google program manager speaking with Gizmodo at the time said their team hadn’t been made aware of the program until it appeared on The New York Times website.
“Workers should absolutely be given the right to know where their labor is being put to,” the program manager said. “They should also have the ability to refuse or advocate against putting workers’ labor towards unethical means.”