Tech companies have been supplying and profiting for years off of their work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Though recent years have brought a lot of backlash and protests, even from employees inside their organizations, some of the companies have shown no indication of stopping this work. But they must stop. Tech companies must be accountable for what their tech is used for. There must be a higher standard of ethics and regulations in the tech industry.
When Amazon workers protested their company’s involvement with ICE in July 2019, the company argued that the government should determine what constitutes “acceptable use” of technology. So does CEO Jeff Bezos believe tech companies hold no accountability for what their technology is used for? What should companies do if the government is using their technology unethically? Declare it’s not their fault or their problem? Many of us reject this lack of accountability.
The movement #NoTechForICE was started by the Latinx activism group Mijente that advocates for major tech companies to stop helping ICE cage immigrants. It works to protect the rights of immigrant adults and children against mistreatment in ICE detention centers. These crimes are even more serious during a global health crisis.
A parallel can be drawn to the current Facebook boycott. CEO Mark Zuckerberg is claiming he has little responsibility for what people do or post on Facebook because it is an open platform and therefore not his problem. But the #NoTechForICE movement brings up important questions around what constitutes accountability in tech. The reforms it seeks could set a precedent for the ethics and obligations these corporations must have in other areas as well.
Tech companies often claim neutrality and a lack of responsibility for the technology that they create, partly because it is non-physical and global. Virtual services have often seemed intangible and even slightly insignificant, though that attitude is fading fast as the world increasingly lives online. And yet no one country’s laws can fully govern a global corporation. But when technology is harming lives, there must be accountability. It is not wrong to blame leaders for their mistakes and even crimes. It is not possible for tech companies to be neutral when they are enablers of wrongdoing.
Palantir is, ironically, a major company whose website boasts it is trying to “solve hard problems and change the world for the better.” Yet it is facing lots of backlash for its own ICE involvement. It preaches positive change yet turns around and enables social harm. Palantir’s data, specifically, was used to help arrest parents and family members who went to ICE centers to claim children from whom they had been separated. Palantir was instrumental in enabling a trap that sought to catch parents who attempted to take their children out of ICE’s cages.
Tech companies themselves sometimes see the hypocrisy and injustices that they partake in. Dell, Microsoft, Palantir, and many others all downplay their involvement with ICE. They seem ashamed of their involvement. However, they continue to make many millions of dollars by taking part in human rights abuses, instead of working to stop it.
Tech companies have a decision to make. Will they use their power for good and create change or will they add to injustice and make profits supporting and supplying ICE? Tech companies have the opportunity to help the government improve human rights for immigrants; right now these companies are ignoring this opportunity.
Tech companies refusing to sell to ICE is only the first step. It is likely that even if these major corporations stop selling data to ICE, others will step in to replace them. However, I believe it is imperative that companies demonstrate to the public that they put lives before profit. Large companies have the power to create conversation and change, and refusing to sell to ICE would be a huge step in the right direction. It would show that major American businesses will not continue to be bystanders and enablers of inhumane practices. #NoTechforICE isn’t a simple solution, but it can set a precedent for tech companies to be more ethical.
This change starts with tech companies taking accountability for how their tech is used. Currently, Microsoft, Palantir, and Dell’s tech is being used to help cage immigrant children and adults in direct violation of UN human rights laws. They are partakers, suppliers, and enablers. It must stop. Otherwise, tech companies will have blood on their hands, no matter how much they claim not to be responsible for how their technology is used.
Julia Morgan-Canales is Techonomy’s summer intern.