As Google and Amazon employees fight back against the tech giants’ Israeli military contract, college graduates have also joined the resistance.
Amid Israel’s assault on Gaza and occupied East Jerusalem in May 2021, Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google signed a $1.22 billion contract to provide cloud technology to Israel’s public sector and its military, known as Project Nimbus.
In response, Google and Amazon workers formed a coalition opposing Project Nimbus as well as strategizing against the technology’s implementation.
While just over a year old, Google and Amazon have not addressed the Workers Against Nimbus and #NoTechForApartheid campaigns publicly, but the activist network has had success in cutting the corporations’ power — even if only slightly.
“The students who are graduating from university and who have applied to Amazon and Google are turning down all of these interview requests,” an anonymous Amazon employee told MintPress News, describing how it makes them hopeful to see that kind of community support. “They’re specifically telling Amazon and Google, ‘We’re not going to these interviews because of Project Nimbus.’’’
Earlier this month, activists disrupted the keynote speech at an AWS summit in New York City, drawing attention to the tech behemoth’s controversial contract with the Israeli government.
“By doing business with Israeli apartheid, Amazon and Google will make it easier for the Israeli government to surveil Palestinians and force them off their land,” a website for the #NoTechForApartheid campaign says.
Outside the summit’s venue, Google employee Gabriel Schubiner addressed protesters. “As tech workers we need to ask ourselves: do we want a world where militaries around the world are training AI [artificial intelligence] for surveillance and targeting on our hardware?” Schubiner said. “Do we want to give nationalist armies of the world our technology?”
Google and AWS beat out IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft for an Israeli government tender last year to jointly build and provide cloud-based regional data centers within Israel’s borders and under Israeli law. Project Nimbus will allow Israeli ministries and other public entities to transfer servers and services into the cloud. Local data centers are expected to be completed within two years. Until then, cloud services will be provided by Google and AWS data centers in Ireland, the Netherlands, and Germany.
The contract also includes a provision stipulating Amazon and Google cannot shut down operations and deny services to certain government entities, effectively barring the tech firms from engaging in a boycott of Israel or stopping the technology from being used to enact human rights abuses.
The Workers Against Project Nimbus campaign described how they felt during the Israeli 2021 attacks and why they were compelled to join together.
“[W]e had to face the fact that those of us Palestinian tech workers with family and loved ones in Gaza or the West Bank, those of us living in diaspora, would now be enabling violence and oppression against our own communities – all while professing the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion,” The Workers Against Project Nimbus said in a July 26 Tech Workers Coalition (TWC) newsletter.
Google and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment on Project Nimbus or the worker-led campaign against it.
Bolstering a data-driven occupation
Little is known about Project Nimbus as Google and Amazon employees have been kept in the dark about the project’s activities and what the Israeli government may use the technology for.
The Palestinian Amazon worker spoke to MintPress News under the condition of anonymity to avoid workplace retaliation that the corporations have not disclosed any details about Project Nimbus to employees. “We are completely alienated from what our labor bills and the effect it has, all while being the ones who are putting in the work for it,” they said.
However, newly-unveiled documents first reported by The Intercept showcase the tools provided to the Israeli government and may offer a glimpse into how Project Nimbus may be used.
According to training slides and videos accessed through a public educational portal for Nimbus users, Google is offering Israel its full suite of machine learning and advanced artificial intelligence tools on its Google Cloud Platform. These services include facial detection, computer vision, automated image categorization, object tracking, and sentiment detection, a controversial form of machine learning claiming to determine a person’s feelings through their face and statements.
“Even though these training materials are fairly standard, it shows that Google is actively trying to help the Israeli government, including Israeli Defense Forces, to train their own AI systems on top of Google’s Cloud systems,” Jack Poulson, executive director of watchdog group, Tech Inquiry, told MintPress News.
Poulson expressed concerns over training documents detailing an Edge model of Google’s Tensor Processing Unit, an AI application designed to accelerate machine learning workloads.
“Edge is often a codeword for when it’s deployed outside of a traditional location, usually in the field,” Poulson said. “That in many cases include drones, surveillance cameras, cell phones, and places where you would directly be performing measurements or surveillance.”
Poulson is also wary of speech-to-text and language translation capabilities mentioned in the training materials.
“Hypothetically speaking, suppose the Israeli government built a system that had access to the conversations with Palestinians or a lot of footage on Palestinians, then any sort of large collection of audio could be transcribed directly from speech-to-text,” Poulson said. “The text could be translated into another language if needed, and surveillance camera footage could be used to track people of interest.”
The anonymous Amazon employee reiterated how the training materials appear harmless, but with Israel’s criminal track record, these resources can easily be turned into something nefarious.
“There’s a darker side to these things,” they said. “In the American reality, these tools are putting an end to privacy, but in occupied Palestine, it’s enabling the war crimes.”
In the TWC newsletter, workers described how the technology may be used to entrench Israel’s occupation of Palestine:
The cloud technology we build, market, and research would now be used to host an apartheid identification system – one that determines individuals’ freedom of movement and rights based on their identity and where they are born. Such tech would be used to store massive amounts of information collected about Palestinians – from capturing CCTV footage and taking photos at checkpoints and even biometric data – that could be used to surveil and criminalize civilians.
The newsletter warned that:
Apartheid Israeli government ministries such as the Israeli Land Authority, which systematically segregates and confines Palestinians while allowing for illegal settlement expansion for Jewish Israelis, would use this tech.
Data-driven technology is the backbone of Israel’s military occupation of Palestine. Numerous reports have revealed how Israel is using digital surveillance tools to spy, monitor, and cement control over Palestinians. This technology is deployed on social media, at checkpoints, and through neighborhood CCTV footage. It comes in the form of data collection and analysis, call monitoring, and facial recognition. This mass system of surveillance gives Palestinians the perpetual feeling of being watched, erasing their privacy and autonomy.
Not just Project Nimbus
While Project Nimbus is in the spotlight due to the worker-led campaign against it, other U.S. tech corporations are also supporting Israel’s occupation.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense adopted Palo-Alto-based Anjuna’s Confidential Cloud software that trains AI models so tech firm employees will not be able to access any of that data. Tech giant Cisco has been involved in growing Israel’s visual surveillance apparatus in Jerusalem. Motorola Solutions Israel, a subsidiary of the U.S.-based Motorola Solutions, has been providing the Israeli Defense Ministry with surveillance system technology for Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and the Apartheid Wall, the barrier separating the West Bank and 1948-occupied Palestine or modern-day Israel.
While there have been employee resignations over Project Nimbus, the anonymous worker told MintPress News that they remain with Amazon as a way to implement change from the inside, especially since most corporations are guilty of similar atrocities to Amazon and Google.
“It’s more important to try to change things instead of just running,” the employee said. “It’s similar to what the Palestinians are doing; they’re not running. They’re staying and fighting and resisting.”
Feature photo | Netanyahu speaks at the inauguration of Google’s Campus TLV, a tech hub for Israeli start-ups at Google’s Tel Aviv office. Dan Balilty | AP
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.