Trump’s child separation policy challenges more than just Microsoft to take a lead

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 18, 2018
Microsoft suffered collateral damage from Trump’s child separation policy, but for other tech leaders, the challenges are still ahead.

Trump children immigrants
In an era of corporate activism and enhanced ethical debate, Microsoft has found itself caught up in controversy after a blog post emerged declaring that it was “proud to support” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Now, while here at diginomica we’re always keen to encourage vendors to big up their use case customer exemplars, an association with ICE at the present time is likely to be read as, at best, unfortunate in light of the Trump Administration’s child separation policy. (Warning - distressing audio clip).

In the unlikely event that you’ve missed the coverage - or only watch Fox News - it’s estimated that since President Trump ordered his zero-tolerance approach on illegal border crossing, over 2,000 undocumented children, some as young as 8 months old, have been separated from their parents at the border and housed in mass cages in warehouses.

While Trump and his mouthpieces are defending the policy, with the President linking it to his demands for billions of dollars to build his famous wall with Mexico, other voices have condemned the practice as inhuman and cruel.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has been outspoken in favor of immigration, so it’s a bad look for the firm to be seemingly talking up its work with the ICE under the circumstances. Equally unfortunately, Microsoft President Brad Smith had written a post on LinkedIn the day before that appeared to disapprove of the Trump policy:

This Father’s Day provides an opportunity to recall one thing we shouldn’t take for granted — the opportunity to be with our children. Given the news of migrant children being separated from their parents at the US-Mexico border, it’s especially poignant this year.

Thin ICE

It was a  company blog post from 24 January  that caused the fuss. In that, Microsoft says ICE is using its tech to “utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification” of immigrants:

The new FedRAMP High ATO validates that Azure Government meets all security and compliance standards necessary to handle ICE's most sensitive unclassified data, including data that supports the core agency functions and protects against loss of life.

This ATO is a critical next step in enabling ICE to deliver such services as cloud-based identity and access, serving both employees and citizens from applications hosted in the cloud. This can help employees make more informed decisions faster, with Azure Government enabling them to process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.

ICE's decision to accelerate IT modernization using Azure Government will help them innovate faster while reducing the burden of legacy IT. The agency is currently implementing transformative technologies for homeland security and public safety, and we're proud to support this work with our mission-critical cloud.

There’s actually no direct link made there between ICE’s decision to use Microsoft Azure and the Trump policy, but such is the growing outrage following images and recordings from inside the cage-filled warehouses that the vendor has taken collateral damage, both from its own employees and from commentators on social channels.

The firm did itself no favors when someone removed the text about ICE from the blog post, a move that just confirmed conspiracy theorists of Microsoft’s guilt-by-association. Microsoft later said this was done in error:

This was a mistake and as soon as it was noticed the blog was reverted to previous language. An employee edited the blog after seeing commentary in social media. This was a mistake and as soon as it was noticed the blog was reverted to previous language.

By late Monday, Microsoft was in damage control mode, issuing a statement of its opposition to the Trump policy:

As a company, Microsoft is dismayed by the forcible separation of children from their families at the border. Family unification has been a fundamental tenant of American policy and law since the end of World War II. As a company, Microsoft has worked for over 20 years to combine technology with the rule of law to ensure that children who are refugees and immigrants can remain with their parents. We need to continue to build on this noble tradition rather than change course now. We urge the administration to change its policy and Congress to pass legislation ensuring children are no longer separated from their families.

Evem that wasn’t enough to douse the flames, forcing the company to state explicitly that it is:

not working with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement or U.S. Customs and Border Protection on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border, and contrary to some speculation, we are not aware of Azure or Azure services being used for this purpose.

Whether that’s an end to the matter remains to be seen. Trump is doubling down on the policy, so the controversy is not likely to go away soon. Microsoft will find itself faced with more questions more than likely.

A tech leadership challenge

Away from the specifics of this case, this does raise questions about the tech sector and its potential enablement of morally or politically questionable activities by governments and others.

There’s nothing new here. We can look back to the notorious example of IBM’s enabling role in the Holcaust as a reminder of that.

That’s clearly an incredibly extreme example, but other vendors have shown themselves ready to tap political crises as an opportunity. Those of us with long-enough memories may remember Siebel’s post 9/11 advertising campaign, which featured an image of one of the hijackers passing through airport security and a tag line of ‘Who are the Mohammed Attas of Tomorrow?’.

The idea was that if the U.S. Government bought Siebel tech, the authorities would be able to identify and track individuals and prevent atrocities. In a post-NSA revelations world, positioning your product set as enabling mass data monitoring of people would be a subject of considerable debate in marketing circles...

Since the election of Trump, there have been several instances of the tech sector taking a stand against his administration’s policies, with immigration a topic of particular concern. Tech leaders also took strong stands against the Muslim travel ban  and the end of the Dreamers Act. 

But when tested, is the tech sector always going to do the right thing? We’ve noted before that there are circles to be squared here. The U.S. Government sector is too lucrative for companies not to engage with it. So what compromises need to be made so as not to alienate prospects completely while still taking a stand?

It’s yet to be tested in practice, but as a case in point, which vendor would be willing to consider providing the enabling tech for the Muslim Register that Trump threatened to bring in while he was on the campaign trail? The likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft all made it clear that they wouldn’t; others have ominously kept their own counsel.

But this is an age of political activism with a new sense of what we’d once have called Corporate Social Responsbility which has seen the rise of the Citizen CEO. Companies such as Salesforce have led the revolution here, such as the taking on of the-then Indiana Governor and now Vice-President Mike Pence over legislative bigotry towards the LGBTQ community. 

A brief scan of who and what CEO Marc Benioff has been retweeting over the past few days can leave little doubt as to his views on the child separation situation, while the firm’s Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet has made his view crystal clear:

Tony Prophet Tweet

And other CEOs are outspoken, such as Box’s Aaron Levie and AirBnB’s Brian Chesky:

Aaron Levie Tweet Box

Airbnb founders tweet

Beyond public comments, what can be done to counter political decisions of which firms disapprove? Well, clearly there’s the ‘hit them in the wallet’ aspect that Benioff used to bring down Pence’s anti-gay legislation in Indiana and equivalent ‘bigots charter’ plans in Georgia as the states faced up to losing billions in revenue as a result of Salesforce and others boycotting it.

But sometimes firms just have to step up to the mark and take a potential hit, as is the case with Google and its decision to drop out of the U.S. Government’s Project Maven, which is all about applying AI to military uses. Following a petition from more than 4000 Google staffers, CEO Sundar Pachai decided that the firm won’t renew its contract on the project when it expires next year.

He added that henceforth Google won’t design AI for :

  • technologies that cause or are likely to cause overall harm
  • weapons or other technologies whose principal purpose is to cause or directly facilitate injury to people
  • technology that gathers or uses information for surveillance violating internationally accepted norms
  • technologies whose purpose contravenes widely accepted principles of international law and human rights.

That’s a set of principles that is very welcome, but which won’t sit well with the more hawkish elements around the world.  But with the all-important public sector market in mind, he did add:

We want to be clear that while we are not developing AI for use in weapons, we will continue our work with governments and the military in many other areas. These include cybersecurity, training, military recruitment, veterans’ healthcare, and search and rescue. These collaborations are important and we’ll actively look for more ways to augment the critical work of these organizations and keep service members and civilians safe

Circle squared?

My take

In consultancy engagements with tech vendors around their messaging, one of the things I’ve advised over the years is a simple rule-of-thumb - no sex, no religion, no politics.

But we live in a different time, one in which corporate activism is on the rise and the tech sector looks to be the better for it. At diginomica, we’ve made no secret of our commitment to equality, diversity and basic fairness in society - not just in the U.S - and that remains hardwired into our own corporate DNA. It will surprise no-one then that looking at pictures of distressed children in cages sickens us.

The tech industry has thrown up leaders who’ve had to take politically-difficult, but morally and societally correct positions in recent years - and particularly over the past 18 months. Microsoft’s problems this week have just reminded us again of the tricky balancing act that socially-responsible vendors need to pull off in a world that seems seldom to have been more polically-disrupted. Sadly I fear that the really big challenges lie ahead of us and we’re going to need all the Citizen CEOs we can nurture to get us through this.

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