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Tech States Sensemaker

The Tech States’ “Me Too” moment

Wednesday 8 September 2021

How is Big Tech handling its employee revolution?


Here’s what you need to know this week:

  • State affairs: Are the tech states seeing their “Me Too” moment?

State by state:

  • Amazon moved closer to becoming a new US postal service
  • Facebook apologised for another racist outcome from an algorithmic system
  • Google locked the Taliban out of accessing sensitive intelligence
  • Tencent increased its overseas investments
  • Microsoft Exchange servers were hacked… again
  • Apple backtracked over harmful content detection

State affairs: The Tech States’ “Me Too” moment

Monday was “Labor Day” in the US; a holiday celebrating the changing role of workers in the history of the country. Workers at the big tech states have seen their own evolution; growing increasingly outspoken and critical of the digital nations they serve.

Amazon, Apple and Google – which together employ more than 1.6 million workers – now face serious labour relations challenges on a regular basis, as a wave of employee activism sweeps through Silicon Valley. It’s a far cry from a few years ago, when tech’s white collar workforce largely kept quiet on societal and political issues, content to take home larger-than-average paychecks in return for their silence.

Here are some of the key moments in the tech state employee revolution: 

  • Google is facing employee activism on a scale it has never seen before. First, it is fighting a court case over the firing of five employees last year. Google alleges that each of them violated the company’s security policies by leaking sensitive information or tampering with internal systems. The staff, known at the “Thanksgiving Five” – having all been dismissed around Thanksgiving 2019, tell a different story. One of them, Kathryn Spiers, created an internal notification on the Google server that alerted staff when anyone visited the website of anti-union consultancy firm, IRI Consultants, which Google had just hired. More generally, employee anger has mounted since the dismissal of Dr. Timnit Gebru (a noted Black AI ethicist) last year. Since Gebru’s ousting, Google has faced allegations that it marginalised minorities, women and people of colour. Spiers noted that “of the five people that were fired [around Thanksgiving], three of us are trans women… that is either an unbelievable coincidence or Google is targeting the most vulnerable.” 
  • Apple. After years of silence, employees using the #AppleToo banner published an open letter requesting an unbiased audit of the tech state’s whistleblowing processes, claiming that “for too long, Apple has evaded public scrutiny”. One complaint is about the enforced merging of personal and corporate lives. Workers are currently “aggressively encouraged” to sync all their devices – including home phones – which allows their personal data to be searched by Apple. The company also recently barred staff from discussing pay on a Slack channel because it claimed the subject didn’t help “advance the work, deliverable or mission of Apple”. But the bosses allowed slack channels with names like #fun-dogs and #dad-jokes.
  • Amazon. Long criticised for working conditions – the tech state now has to contend with new legislation in the state of California that curtails its use of “productivity measurement algorithms”, designed to keep workers “on task” for as long as possible. The e-commerce giant had recently fired hundreds of workers for falling short of quotas, which many staff claim are inhumane. In March, a Vice investigation exposed how Amazon drivers were urinating in bottles – something that Amazon had explicitly denied. Though the first formal move to organise amongst employees at Amazon ended in a landmark decision against unionising (No: 1,798, Yes:738 at Amazon’s massive Bessemer, Alabama facility) the conversation is far from over. The US National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) will soon decide whether Amazon’s guerilla anti-union tactics were extreme enough to warrant a rerun of the vote.

These are just the most recent developments. Microsoft and Amazon have been hit with public letters, signed by hundreds of employees, demanding they stop selling facial recognition software to governments. At Facebook, hundreds of staff staged a virtual walkout last year amid anger at its stance over President Donald Trump. As tech workers head back to the office, it’s unlikely their anger will subside. “Every tech company is going to be asking how it deals with increased activism,” one source told us. “It’s a big issue going into 2022.”


Amazon: Commerce

How about this for a statistic: in 2020, Amazon spent more than $61 billion on shipping, up from $38 billion in 2019 (source: CNBC). Just for comparison, that’s 20 times Shopify’s total revenue in 2020. More significantly, the figures suggest that Amazon’s shipping operation might now be bigger – or at least more costly – than FedEx’s (FedEx spent about $47 billion on “purchased transportation” and related costs in 2021, although that doesn’t include staff). Much of Amazon’s shipping growth now comes from moving cargo for other customers: largely through its air cargo fleet. Some 70 per cent of the US population now lives within 100 miles of an Amazon airport. “They want to be a new kind of US postal service,” Chris McCabe, an e-commerce consultant, said.


Facebook: Racial discrimination

It’s still happening. Years after companies like Google were pilloried for mistakenly labelling pictures of Black people as “gorillas”, Facebook’s algorithms are still serving up racist outcomes. A video posted by the Daily Mail on the social media site, featuring Black men, was tagged with an automated prompt which asked Facebook viewers if they would like to “keep seeing videos about primates”. Race and AI is a huge issue, and Facebook itself set up an internal team to look for racial bias in algorithms back in 2020. The latest gaff – for which Facebook has now apologised – shows there is a lot more work to be done.


Google: Sensitive intelligence

Google has blocked the email accounts of a number of former Afghan government officials over fears that their sensitive information will fall into the hands of the Taliban. Speaking to Reuters, a former employee of the Afghan government said that the extremist group is “seeking to acquire former officials’ emails” and that he had been asked to preserve the data on Ministry servers (the employee declined and has subsequently gone into hiding). The Gmail accounts, calendars and documents might contain valuable information on political enemies, allowing the Taliban to identify and even track down members of the former administration. Put like that, Google’s actions appear not only proportionate but morally correct. Yet the decision also shows how, with a flex of its muscles, a foreign corporation thousands of miles away can block digital information on a massive scale.


Apple: Concession on content

Apple is not usually a company that rows back on itself. That’s no longer true. In the last two weeks the company has been forced into softening its strict App store rules on no less than two occasions (once in the US and once in Japan). It has also delayed plans to roll out its child sexual abuse (CSAM) detection technology announced last month, after a barrage of criticism from privacy and consumer groups. The tech was designed to identify known CSAM on a user’s device, but researchers found it could be tricked into thinking non-CSAM images were suspect. Apple supporters, however, point out that the company is one of the only tech states taking significant action against CSAM material, which, as this NYTimes investigation found, is horrifically prevalent across the web.


Tencent: Foreign direct investment

Tencent – our Chinese tech state – is one of the world’s biggest and savviest tech investors. Its stake in about 100 publicly listed companies generated $120 billion in gains last year, roughly six times its estimated 2020 profit. This year, squeezed by President Xi’s tech crackdown at home, Tencent has increased its overseas start-up investments sevenfold. Most of Tencent’s European deals were in the gaming sector: a key target of Xi’s reforms within China’s borders. The move makes sense commercially: Tencent’s international gaming revenue now contributes a quarter of its total online games revenue.


Microsoft: Hacking

It took hackers from the Russian-speaking Conti ransomware group less than 30 minutes to exploit an unpatched vulnerability on Microsoft’s Exchange servers, quickly gaining control of the target server and, with it, the ability to execute commands at will. The case, part of a wider attack discovered last week by researchers at Sophos PLC, is yet another example of how ransomware hackers are innovating ahead of cyber protectors. One big problem is that Microsoft and others often fix vulnerabilities quickly – only to see their clients failing to apply the patches. In April, the FBI got so annoyed by this trend that they hacked into compromised Exchange servers themselves to remove the vulnerabilities.


On 30 September Tortoise is hosting a Cyber Summit to discuss how we can stay ahead of cybercrime in a digital age. Do join us here.

Thanks for reading,

Luke Gbedemah
@LukeGbedemah

Alexi Mostrous
@AlexiMostrous