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Microsoft and Big Tech Can’t Distance Themselves From the Police Violence They Fuel

Tech companies praised the Derek Chauvin conviction, but their products underwrite the kind of impunity and overstep they claim to oppose.

Police stand in position against a small group of protesters
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

A few hours after a jury found Derek Chauvin guilty of three charges in the murder of George Floyd, Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, announced his sympathy and support for the outcome. “Today’s verdict is a step forward in acknowledging painful truths and for the continued cause of defeating racism and fighting discrimination,” tweeted Smith, linking to a brief company statement: “Our company remains committed to the continued path ahead.”

This is standard practice at this point. In the age of what conservatives fearfully describe as woke corporatism, it’s not unusual for a large company to release a statement on issues of national concern. These are essentially customer loyalty and brand-building exercises. (Microsoft’s market cap of $1.95 trillion makes it the world’s second-most valuable company, next to Saudi Aramco.) Following Floyd’s killing last May and the subsequent national protests, tech companies raced to present themselves as partners in the march toward nebulously defined police reform. Some merely offered support for Black Lives Matter or lukewarm rhetoric about “change,” but others donated to activist organizations, invested in diversity initiatives, established small-business funds, and generally promised—however opportunistically—to “do better.” (Or maybe the commitment was to “listening and learning,” depending on the brand consultant working on their messaging.) In a corporate blog titled “Addressing racial injustice,” published in June, Microsoft pledged to “use the power of data, technology, and partnership to help improve the lives of Black and African American citizens across our country.”

A year later, it’s clear that basically nothing has changed. Many tech companies still maintain contracts with law enforcement agencies and a U.S. military engaged in a disastrous forever war. Despite the occasional charitable donation or burst of progressive rhetoric, these tech companies remain aligned with institutional power and the violence through which it’s maintained. None of this is exactly revelatory, but identifying the deep connections between big tech and the carceral state is a necessary part of the project of dismantling those things. You can’t really see the whole of one, at this point, without looking at the other.

Microsoft runs the New York Police Department’s Domain Awareness System, one of the largest municipal surveillance systems in the world, and does work for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Microsoft has somehow managed to combine its lucrative work for ICE with legal efforts to support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.) It also has tens of billions of dollars in contracts with the Pentagon to provide cloud computing and augmented reality goggles for the Army. It was a recent runner-up—to Google and Amazon—in the sweepstakes for a contract to furnish cloud services to Israel’s government. In every sense, the company’s fortunes are deeply bound up with the same authoritarian forces surveilling and killing people at home and abroad. (For its part, Google also has a large cloud contract with the less-than-democratic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.) Microsoft speaks of the need for federal regulation and principled use of new technologies, while failing to hold itself accountable in its own deal-making. “Microsoft has a responsibility to do more than speak about ethical principles; it must also act in accordance with those principles,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a 2019 letter to Microsoft’s leadership.

Predictably, Smith’s statement was echoed by other Microsoft executives and tech industry figures who praised him for his moral stand. He was joined by Amazon, which declared that Black lives matter and that the Chauvin verdict reflected a “small, yet important victory in the larger fight against racism and social injustice.” Of course, Amazon recently succeeded in crushing a unionization effort in Bessemer, Alabama, which, as The New York Times reported, was led by Black workers and deliberately modeled around the Black Lives Matter movement.

I can keep going, so why not? Both Microsoft and Amazon are invested in privacy-obliterating and racially biased facial-recognition technology and are cooperating to defend against lawsuits regarding their use of the tech. Microsoft offers a facial-recognition product that it claims can detect emotions ranging from “contempt” to “disgust” to “surprise.” Amazon is the chief purveyor of facial-recognition products to U.S. police forces, immigration agencies, and the FBI, according to The Seattle Times. Early into the uprisings that followed Floyd’s murder, Amazon announced a one-year pause on sale of facial-recognition tech to law enforcement. Days later, Microsoft said that it would also suspend sales of facial recognition to law enforcement until federal regulators stepped in. Neither company has said whether it will maintain the self-imposed bans, although the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System still, as of reporting from June 2020, makes use of facial recognition. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Ring network of surveillance cameras and doorbells—which has tested still-unreleased facial-recognition features—has built up partnerships with more than 2,000 police and fire departments. (Some Google Nest cameras also use facial recognition.)

The last year of political upheaval has been a test of what one considers good or bad faith. Perhaps when Amazon executive Andy Jassy denounces police murder—despite his company providing technical services to a wide swathe of American law enforcement—he actually means it. Maybe when Apple CEO Tim Cook, who made his name by squeezing every last efficiency out of Apple’s mercilessly managed labor and supply chain, cites Dr. Martin Luther King on how to achieve justice for Black people, he is speaking sincerely. And when the president of Microsoft—the first participant in the National Security Agency’s PRISM program and a prolific military contractor in its own right—sounds the horn of social justice, he may indeed believe he’s doing more than ventriloquizing P.R.-friendly bromides.

That hardly matters. Their actions, and those of the companies they lead, demonstrate otherwise. Silicon Valley long ago became a paid-up member of what’s sometimes referred to as the defense-industrial base. Policing, the carceral system, and our extravagantly subsidized military all depend on their products and technical expertise. Their records on employee diversity and treatment of frontline workers, especially during the pandemic, remain poor. As for unions, the word is practically verboten, despite some noble efforts to organize. But if their political activism is riven with hypocrisy, at least they help reveal what kind of reforms are ultimately needed.

After Microsoft employees criticized the company’s decision to develop A.R. goggles for the military, CEO Satya Nadella said, “We made a principled decision that we’re not going to withhold technology from institutions that we have elected in democracies to protect the freedoms we enjoy.” But in our debauched democracy, our military and law enforcement institutions are not protectors of freedom; they’re violators of it. To recognize this bald fact would be impossible for someone like Nadella or his colleague Brad Smith. It would mean confronting the power that companies like Microsoft have accrued, and recognizing that their continued existence depends on sustaining the very violence they claim to protest.