Amid drone program controversy, students boycott Google internships

June 5, 2018, 7:53 p.m.

Student activist group the Stanford Solidarity Network (SSN) has released a petition calling on Google to pledge not to pursue any future contracts with the military, adding that until such a commitment is made, signatories will not pursue internships or postgraduate jobs with the tech giant.

“We, students, pledge that we will … refuse to participate in developing technologies of war,” the petition says, later adding that students will “refrain from interviewing with Google” until their demands are met.

The petition comes amid criticism of Google, both internal and external, over a Department of Defense program it is contracting with called “Project Maven.” Maven uses artificial intelligence to interpret drone video footage and improve targeting for strikes.

On June 1, it was announced that Google would not be working with the project beyond next year, when its current contract expires. The decision followed a petition by 4,000 Google employees demanding “that neither Google nor its contractors … ever build warfare technology.”

The SSN petition uses similar language, calling on Google to “fully [commit] not to develop military technologies in the future.” However, it also goes a step further, calling for Google to “fully [withdraw] from its contract with the Department of Defense,” suggesting a premature end to the military contract rather than a non-renewal of it further on down the road.

The student petition additionally calls for Google to not use any personal data it has collected for military applications.

As of Tuesday evening, SSN’s petition had 52 signatures, with a final goal of 100. However, not all signatories were students at Stanford.

In their Tweet announcing the petition, SSN tagged student unions from several other universities — including at UC Berkeley, Harvard, Cornell and the University of Chicago — for help disseminating the petition. Also tagged was YDSA, the student wing of the Democratic Socialists of America.

Additionally, 20 Stanford affiliates — including professors, lecturers, graduate students and undergraduates — appear to have signed an open letter penned in mid-May by the International Community for Robot Arms Control (ICRAC). The Stanford affiliates whose signatures appear on the letter study teach in multiple University departments, including computer science, economics and bioengineering.

“We wholeheartedly support [Google employee’s] demand that Google terminate its contract with the DoD, and that Google and its parent company Alphabet commit not to develop military technologies and not to use the personal data that they collect for military purposes,” the letter states. “The extent to which military funding has been a driver of research and development in computing historically should not determine the field’s path going forward.”

The ICRAC open letter also requests that Google and Alphabet executives join an existing campaign for an international treaty prohibiting “autonomous weapon systems.” Other technology executives, as well as AI and robotics researchers, are already part of this effort.

Listed signatories of the ICRAC open letter include computer science lecturer Chris Piech, computer science professors James Landay and Doug James, communications professor Fred Turner, co-director of the Stanford Human-Computer Interaction Group Terry Winograd, professor emeritus in computer science Eric Roberts, Students for Alternatives to Militarism member Dan Walls Ph.D. ’18, associate professor of bioengineering and of microbiology and immunology Kerwyn Huang and assistant professor of film and media studies Shane Denson.

The question of what role artificial intelligence research should play in drone programs is not a new one for Stanford.

Earlier this year, The Daily reported on a student project done for the class “Hacking For Defense” — wherein student engineers partner with defense industry sponsors — that involved the use of computer vision to identify potential targets for drone strikes.

Since the war on terror began, American drone policy has been criticized on a number of grounds, including a lack of transparency about civilian deaths as well as questions surrounding the program’s legality under international law.


This report will be updated.


Contact Brian Contreras at brianc42 ‘at’ and Holden Foreman at hs4man21 ‘at’

Brian Contreras was the Daily's Investigations Editor during the '19-'20 school year. Before that, he was a Managing Editor of the news section. A graduate of Stanford's class of 2020, he studied Science, Technology, and Society with a minor in Anthropology. Brian hails from Washington, DC and is pursuing a career in tech journalism. Contact him at briancontreras42 'at' Foreman '21 was the Vol. 258-59 chief technology officer. Holden was president and editor-in-chief in Vol. 257, executive editor (vice president) in Vol. 256, managing editor of news in Vol. 254 and student business director in Vol. 255.

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