Microsoft declines to commit itself; IBM, Google and Apple do not respond after two weeks.
Reprinted with permission from The Intercept.
Shortly after the election, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty wrote a personal letter to President-elect Donald Trump in which she offered her congratulations, and more importantly, the services of her company. The six different areas she identified as potential business opportunities between a Trump White House and IBM were all inoffensive and more or less mundane, but showed a disturbing willingness to sell technology to a man with open interest in the ways in which technology can be abused: Mosque surveillance, a “virtual wall” with Mexico, shutting down portions of the internet on command and so forth. Trump’s anti-civil liberty agenda, half-baked and vague as it is, would largely be an engineering project, one that would almost certainly rely on some help from the private sector. It may be asking too much to demand that companies that have long contracted with the federal government stop doing so altogether; indeed, this would probably cause as much harm and disruption to good public projects as it would help stop the sinister ones.
But the proposed “Muslim registry,” whether it be a computerised list of people from two dozen predominately Muslim nations who enter the country (as revealed in Kris Kobach’s fatuously exposed Homeland Security agenda) or a list of all Muslims in the US, is both morally appalling and effectively pointless. In November 2015, asked by a reporter if the country should create “a database or system that tracks Muslims in this country,” Trump replied, “There should be a lot of systems … beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems.” The New York Times reported that Trump added he “would certainly implement that – absolutely.” At a rally later that week, he told the crowd, “So the database – I said yeah, that’s all right, fine.” The next day, George Stephanopoulos asked Trump, “Are you unequivocally now ruling out a database on all Muslims?” Trump replied, “No, not at all.” Although Trump attempted to walk back these comments during the campaign, a registry of some form is now back on the table, at least as far as Kobach is concerned.
Even on a purely hypothetical basis, such a project would provide American technology companies an easy line to draw in the sand – pushing back against any effort to track individuals purely (or essentially) on the basis of their religious beliefs doesn’t take much in the way of courage or conviction, even by the thin standards of corporate America. We’d also be remiss in assuming no company would ever tie itself to such a nakedly evil undertaking: IBM famously helped Nazi Germany computerise the Holocaust. (IBM has downplayed its logistical role in the Holocaust, claiming in a 2001 statement that “most [relevant] documents were destroyed or lost during the war.”)
With all this in mind, we contacted nine different American firms in the business of technology, broadly defined, with the following question: “Would [name of company], if solicited by the Trump administration, sell any goods, services, information, or consulting of any kind to help facilitate the creation of a national Muslim registry, a project which has been floated tentatively by the president-elect’s transition team?”
After two weeks of calls and emails, only three companies provided an answer, and only one said it would not participate in such a project. A complete tally is below.
Facebook: No answer.
Twitter: “No,” and a link to this blog post, which states as company policy a prohibition against the use, by outside developers, of “Twitter data for surveillance purposes. Period.”
Microsoft: “We’re not going to talk about hypotheticals at this point,” and a link to a company blog post that states that “we’re committed to promoting not just diversity among all the men and women who work here, but … inclusive culture” and that “it will remain important for those in government and the tech sector to continue to work together to strike a balance that protects privacy and public safety in what remains a dangerous time.”
Google: No answer.
Apple: No answer.
IBM: No answer.
Booz Allen Hamilton: Declined to comment.
SRA International: No answer.
CGI: No answer.
This isn’t to say that the companies that didn’t reply to a request for comment or declined that request are tacitly endorsing the Trump agenda in general or a Muslim registry in particular. Still, it’s asking very little of today’s tech companies to prompt them to go on record as unwilling to help create a federal list of Muslims – or so one would very much hope.
“Any technology company should resist a government request for assistance that targets a customer on the basis of race, religion, or national origin,” said American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) attorney Ben Wizner when asked about the social and ethical obligation of these companies to fight, in some capacity, a project like the Muslim registry.
Should any of the above companies wish to expand their answer (or non-answer), this post will be updated accordingly.
Reprinted with permission from The Intercept.