Despite risk, 1,000 in tech pledge not to help Trump’s data efforts

By:  Patrick Thibodeau

As President-elect Donald Trump met with high-tech business leaders in New York Wednesday, some of their employees were affirming, in tweets, a decision to join the resistance.

The pledge passed more than 1,000 signatures, it announced late Wednesday, hours after Trump had wrapped up his meeting with a dozen tech executives. Participating in the pledge means agreeing not to help the government create a database that can be used to target people based on race or religion or “facilitate mass deportations.”

In tweets, many praised the pledge signers for their courage. The signers may be putting their jobs at risk, especially if they work in a role that requires a government security clearance.

The tech industry is fully embedded in federal civilian and defense agencies. Employees from large tech firms represented on the Neveragain list included people who say they are employed by Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Cisco, Oracle, IBM, Salesforce — firms that also provide services to the government. These were some of the same firms whose executives met with Trump.

Amazon, for instance, won a $600 million contract several years ago to build a cloud service for the CIA. Google provides email services for the Department of Interior under a $35 million contract. Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Microsoft and Cisco are among the top 100 federal contractors compiled by Washington Technology.

Tech employees who work on federal projects associated with defense or homeland security may have security clearances. The government has a lot of discretion about who gets or retains a security clearance, said attorneys who work at advising people on clearance issues.

Kel McClanahan, an attorney specializing in national security law at National Security Counselors in Washington, says he admires the tech workers for their stand, but says this as well: “I admired the students who stood in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square, but they took a huge risk.”

The standard for issuing a security clearance is this: “It must be in the best interest of the United States for you to have a clearance,” said McClanahan. One of the guidelines for receiving and keeping clearance is “personal conduct.”

“I could see an agency, especially an agency in the throws of nationalist fervor, revoking a security clearance because signing a petition on what you will or won’t work on does not demonstrate good conduct,” said McClanahan.

“If you feel strongly about it, do it,” said McClanahan, about the petition. “It is your right under the Constitution. However, be prepared to face any repercussions.”

“It’s true that signing this pledge puts the person signing it at risk of losing jobs or a clearance,” said Valerie Aurora, one of the Neveragain organizers. She’s also founder of Frame Shift Consulting, a consultancy focusing on diversity and inclusion in tech, and she was formerly a software engineer at IBM and Intel.

“For many of us, the risk of aiding and abetting large-scale human rights abuses is so much more concerning that we wanted to commit ourselves publicly as a way to hold ourselves accountable,” said Aurora.

Aurora said that many tech workers “lead lives of comparative ease and advantage and are willing to risk losing — or quitting — jobs in order to take this stand,” she said. “We hope that we inspire other tech workers to think about what they are and aren’t willing to do, whether or not they can sign the pledge themselves.”

Indeed, the pledge preamble makes clear the stakes. It cites a range of atrocities and human rights abuses, from the Holocaust, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to more recent genocides. Signers pledge not to participate in anything involved in data collection for purposes of mass deportation or registration based on religion or national origin.

“The security clearance process is not supposed to infringe on fundamental First Amendment rights,” said Sean Bigley, a partner at Bigley Ranish in Los Angeles, a firm that specializes in security clearance issues. But because the president, as commander-in-chief, has control over who gets a security clearance, it makes it possible for someone to use their signature on the pledge against them, he said.

Nonetheless, Bigley said there are enough “enough procedural protections in place that political retaliation in the form of a denied or revoked security clearance would be highly unlikely.” The clearance decisions are made by career security officials “who carefully guard their prerogatives against outside influence,” he said.

The bigger problem is if the employee’s action goes beyond a speech issue to refusing to work on a particular project because of the pledge, which could form the basis of security or loyalty concerns, said Bigley.

For tech firms, the problems could be broad, particularly if the government begins seeking information from social media providers and other tech firms to help build out databases to use in mass deportations or registrations. The tech industry has already been at odds with President Barack Obama administration over encryption of data.

David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a Norwalk, Conn.-based human resources consulting firm, believes any kind of action, covert or otherwise, “that would force employees to write such code or work on such a project would likely get publicized, putting the court of public opinion in the resistor’s favor.”

“The impact of taking on such work only to have it dissolve into a public fiasco would have far-reaching impact on most firms, both for their sales and their ability to attract and retain” employees, said Lewis.

In a blog post, Aurora wrote that “this kind of large-scale human rights abuse requires huge numbers of people working together with the full knowledge that they are committing human rights abuses. Tech workers are a crucial part of this system, and if enough of them refuse to do that work, we can have an impact on history.