Former NSA contractor and whistleblower Edward Snowden says that tech workers need to think long and hard about how their labor is used by companies to amass power, surveil people, and fundamentally change society, and need to think about whether it is ethical to work at tech companies at all.
During a panel on technology and surveillance hosted by Motherboard and Mijente, Snowden was asked by Mijente campaign organizer Jacinta González what needs to be done to get workers within the tech industry to take a stronger position in the dismantling of oppressive systems.
Reflecting on his own experience, Snowden acknowledged there does seem to be an awakening occurring within the tech industry, but said those within tech need to think harder about the technologies they’re working on and the greater implications of their work.
“The reality is all work is political work. I don’t care if you’re selling hotdogs on the street. We’re all confronted with choices about how our labor is used, how we direct that, who we are really serving, who we’re working for and who benefits from the labor of our lives,” Snowden said.
Many in the tech industry have organized in recent years. In the past few weeks alone, we’ve seen a “virtual” walkout by hundreds of Facebook employees in protest to the company’s decision to leave up inflammatory posts by President Trump, and a letter signed by at least 1,666 Google employees demanding the company stop selling technology to police departments.
But González noted that even though these moments are exciting, many in the tech industry have not used their power to actually stop dangerous technologies from coming out when confronted by impacted communities. Many tech workers have shown they’re willing to sign their name to a letter, but relatively few have been willing to quit or become whistleblowers.
Snowden said many in the tech industry believe their work is value neutral, making a comparison to the physicists who worked to harness the power of the atom believing it would be used to build clean energy. The result of course was one of the most devastating weapons in human history.
“Engineers like to believe that they’re like scientists, what they do is something that is pure, and they’re just trying to get the rocket up. Where the rocket comes down is not their department,” Snowden said.
“People who make spreadsheets, people who make weather apps, people who just wanted to create family tree websites, all of them are being bought out, are being subverted, are being corrupted, are being incentivized into building capabilities into their platforms, into their apps that fundamentally work against the public and in the favor of some institution wherever they happen to be,” Snowden said.
He also referenced planes recently spotted flying circles above protestors in Portland, Oregon, noting these were the same surveillance strategies utilized in Afghanistan in which drones were used to map cell phones.
“These technologies were forged in the war front but they have a way of moving to the home front and they’re used against the disenfranchised, they’re used against the people with the least, they’re used against vulnerable minorities, and then they’re used against everyone. Even if you feel like this doesn’t affect you personally, it does and it will in time,” Snowden said.
He called on those in the tech industry to look at the bigger picture regarding their work and its implications beyond simply a project—and to think deeply and take a stronger stand with regards to who their labor actually serves.
“It’s not enough to read, it’s not enough to believe in something, it’s not enough to write something, you have to eventually stand for something if you want things to change,” he said.