Google Cloud’s AI Conference Draws Protestors

Technology Policy Brief #97 | By: Mindy Spatt | September 7, 2023

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Although the lengthy agenda for Google Cloud’s AI conference didn’t include any workshops on Project Nimbus, it was at the top of the agenda for a few hundred protestors who converged in San Francisco to accuse Google of complicity with the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  Project Nimbus, a 1.2 billion dollar contract won by Amazon and Google, is a project that will move Israel’s entire government computer system to the cloud.  But that isn’t all it will do.

Policy Analysis

Workers first raised the alarm about Nimbus in an open letter in the Guardian newspaper in 2021, which was signed by “more than 90 workers at Google and more than 300 at Amazon” anonymously, out of fear of retaliation.  They called for an end to the project, which they said would “allow for further surveillance of and unlawful data collection on Palestinians” and facilitate expansion of illegal settlements.

In July 2022 their fears were confirmed by a report in The Intercept that concluded “Google’s data analysis offerings could worsen the increasingly data-driven military occupation.”  Documents uncovered by The Intercept showed that the plan for Nimbus “would give Israel capabilities for facial detection, automated image categorization, object tracking, and even sentiment analysis that claims to assess the emotional content of pictures, speech, and writing.”

It is easy to see why activists are alarmed.  Israel already bombs the homes of “suspected terrorists” and arrests Palestinians without charging them with anything; the possibilities of the wider net that would be cast by these technologies, extending even to “emotional content,” could be devastating.  And Palestinians aren’t the only ones at risk.  Last year Haaretz reported that the Pegasus spyware first used for surveillance of Palestinians was being deployed to spy on Israelis including those protesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The demonstrators were unavoidable on Howard Street outside of the Moscone Center where the conference was held.  They locked arms across the wide street and dropped banners from a pedestrian bridge, heard from speakers including San Francisco Poet Laureate Tongo Eisen-Martin and chanted and cheered loudly.  Many wore t-shirts proclaiming they were Google employees- and most of those who donned the T-shirts also wore masks.  The fear of retaliation is understandable, as Google has been accused of retaliating against employee activists often past, for both union activity and other forms of political activism.

Ariel Koren, an organizer of the protest and former Google employee told US Renew News “In spite of the culture of retaliation that we’ve seen countless workers subjected to, you see Google workers out here today putting their jobs on the line.  Workers have been organizing for the past two years to send a clear message that we refuse to allow our labor to be used to fuel apartheid violence against Palestinian people.”  Koren said Nimbus is a culmination of Google’s deep seated history of complicity with the Israeli government and that Google was sweeping worker’s concerns under the rug.

I stood with a group of protestors handing leaflets out at the conference exit.  Some conference-goers looked bemused, many looked away and only a small number accepted the proffered information.

Judy Graboyes, another protestor, acknowledged that the protest was unlikely to have an impact on Google in the near term, but that it was an important step toward building a movement to stop the use of tech for surveillance of the general population or in the service of an apartheid regime.  “Everything starts slowly, one person at a time,” she said.  “But you have to do something.  If you don’t speak out against it, you are complicit with it.”

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