In the past couple of days I've seen all manner of prompts to add my name to the petition at neveragain.tech, solemnly swearing to:
- refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.
- advocate within our organizations:
- to minimize the collection and retention of data that would facilitate ethnic or religious targeting.
- to scale back existing datasets with unnecessary racial, ethnic, and national origin data.to responsibly destroy high-risk datasets and backups.
- to implement security and privacy best practices, in particular, for end-to-end encryption to be the default wherever possible. to demand appropriate legal process should the government request that we turn over user data collected by our organization, even in small amounts.
if I discover misuse of data that I consider illegal or unethical in my organizations:
- I will work with our colleagues and leaders to correct it.
- If we cannot stop these practices, we will exercise our rights and responsibilities to speak out publicly and engage in responsible whistleblowing without endangering users.
- If we have the authority to do so, we will use all available legal defenses to stop these practices.
- If we do not have such authority, and our organizations force us to engage in such misuse, we will resign from our positions rather than comply.
raise awareness and ask critical questions about the responsible and fair use of data and algorithms beyond my organization and our industry.
The more perceptive readers will be surprised at how closely this declaration follows the election of Donald Trump as President of the USA, and wonder why - following the past 8 years of progressive weaponization of the Federal government - the tech industry has suddenly decided that unlimited government power is A Bad Thing to be strenuously resisted.
OK, maybe it's not much of a mystery.
Seriously though, one has to wonder why so many tecchies - who are, on average, very intelligent and somewhat resistant to regular bullshit - are signing this petition. The classic excuse comes from the role of IBM's equipment in the Holocaust, used by the Nazis to process the data around selection and slaughter of Jews in Europe. IBM itself acknowledges its role:
It has been known for decades that the Nazis used Hollerith equipment and that IBM's German subsidiary during the 1930s -- Deutsche Hollerith Maschinen GmbH (Dehomag) -- supplied Hollerith equipment. As with hundreds of foreign-owned companies that did business in Germany at that time, Dehomag came under the control of Nazi authorities prior to and during World War II. It is also widely known that Thomas J. Watson, Sr., received and subsequently repudiated and returned a medal presented to him by the German government for his role in global economic relations.It's a bit unfair to single out IBM here. The premise is that equipment from an IBM-owned subsidiary was instrumental to the Nazis being able to kill Jews more efficiently. Nowadays, how would we feel if Syria's Bashar Assad used an Excel spreadsheet or two to organise slaughter of non-Alawite citizens? I'm fairly sure that Microsoft's Excel developers couldn't realistically be held accountable for this. Even if a Microsoft sales rep sold a 1000-seat Excel license to the Syrian regime, it would be a bit of a stretch to blame them for any resulting massacre. After all, the regime could always use OpenOffice for a free-as-in-beer-and-freedom solution to programmatic pogrom.
As you might expect from a Silicon Valley initiative, this is primarily intended as strenuous virtue-signalling. "Look at me, how right-thinking I am and how willing to prevent persecution of minorities!" Really though, it will have zero effect. The US Government does not contract out to random Silicon Valley firms for immigration and related database work. They have their own information systems for this, developed at horrific expense and timescales by the Beltway Bandit consulting firms and government IT workers. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services department isn't going to ask Twitter or a San Francisco start-up to develop a new immigrant tracking system - even though I suspect they'd get one with 10% of the downtime and 20% of the cost of the one that the Bandits will develop for them.
The most plausible concern of the signatories is the existing social graph and personally identifiable information in systems like Facebook and Twitter. Religion and national origin isn't stored systematically, and visa status isn't stored at all, but from analysis of posts and relationship activities I can imagine that you could fairly reliably infer areas of the relationship graph that are likely to be e.g. Guatemalan in origin and using Latin American Spanish as their primary language, working in low-wage industries, and physically located in Southern California (checking in from IPs known to be in LA and its environment). If you wanted to identify a pool of likely illegal immigrants, that would be a good place to start. Since Facebook already has this data, and sells access to parts of their information to advertisers, I wonder what these signatories are going to do about it?
$20 says "not a damn thing." They like their jobs and status too much. They won't find other companies as accepting of their social activism and public posturing. They won't take on new jobs targeting minorities, but then no-one sane is going to ask them to take on that kind of work because the D.C. consulting firms want the money instead and have lobbyists ensuring that they'll get it.