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Tech Workers Walked Off the Job After Software They Made Was Sold to ICE

More than 200 employees at the Seattle-based data visualization company Tableau publicly called out their employer for the first time this week, demanding it cut ties with ICE and CBP.

by Lauren Kaori Gurley
Oct 31 2019, 8:11pm

Susan Brown

After more than a year of organizing behind closed doors, employees at the Seattle-based data visualization company Tableau walked off the job on Tuesday, in protest of the company’s ties with U.S. immigration agencies accused of human rights abuses. Roughly 240 employees walked out of Tableau’s headquarters and protested in Seattle’s Gas Works Park, demanding the company stop its software from being sold to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Tableau employees have not openly referenced any specific contracts the company has with the agencies, in order to avoid violating confidentiality agreements they signed as a condition of employment. However, a survey of public federal databases shows that third party vendors have sold millions of dollars of Tableau software to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the agency that houses ICE and CBP, in 2019 alone.

“I, and a dozen other people, hit a breaking point,” James Baker, a principal technical advisor at Tableau and a lead organizer of the walkout, told Motherboard. “We declare, as Tableau employees, that business-as-usual is no longer acceptable,” the employees wrote in a post on Medium. “We call on our company to publicly cease its policy of complicity towards the systematic human rights abuses being carried out by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).”

In July of this year, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS), an agency within DHS, purchased nearly $2.6 million of Tableau products from a contractor in New Mexico. As recently as 2017, DHS intended to establish a licensing agreement that would provide the entire department with access to Tableau’s data analytics tools.

On its website, Tableau describes itself as a company with a “power for the people” mission and anti-corporate approach to business. “We can’t change the world if we have the culture of a typical corporation. So we don’t,” its website says. Many of its employees share this vision, but feel the company failed to uphold its values when it comes to its ongoing ties to ICE and CBP. (In June, Salesforce dolled out $15.8 billion to purchase Tableau, which was founded in 2003 by three Stanford grads).

“We deeply care about the human side of these complex issues,” a Tableau spokesperson told Motherboard in response to news of the employee protest. “Core to our values, Tableau has a long history of using data to actively engage to address social problems. Consistent with our values, we respect diverse thought and open dialogue.”

Baker, one of the lead organizers, said seeing images of overcrowding in detention centers pushed him and other employees over the edge. “I volunteered mostly because I have just about every privilege possible as a rich white straight guy,” he said. “I don't have anything to lose, so why shouldn't I be spending my privilege to help others?”

In late June, Tableau employees penned an internal letter that they presented to the company’s management, requesting the company cut ties with ICE and CBP and providing a two month deadline for doing so. Nearly 20% of Tableau’s roughly U.S. workforce signed onto the resolution. In response, Tableau offered an enumerated proposal, which did not meet any of their specific demands. The company refused to tell Motherboard the details of their proposal.

“They offered what we consider good-sounding-but-vague intentions, then declared their decision made, and the internal discussion over,” employees wrote in their recent statement in Medium. “But our personal and professional ethics do not allow us to simply disagree and move on.” In recent weeks, Tableau employees decided it was time to take their campaign public.

The walkout at Tableau follows employee-led protests at tech companies including Microsoft, Google, Amazon, Salesforce, and most recently Github and Chef, over contracts with the federal agencies that detain and deport migrants. These protests fall within an extended moment of unprecedented workplace activism led by white collar workers at tech companies over a range of issues including sexual harassment, carbon emissions, and military contracts.

“We've watched and been inspired by workers at other companies,” Baker said. “The big walkout at Google, the persistence and presence of Amazon organizers in Seattle, the whole #NoTechForICE movement, even the tech organizer Twitter accounts supporting each other during the Global Climate Strike. We already had our plans in place when Chef changed course, but that was definitely a boost of energy.”

On September 23, Barry Crist, the CEO of Chef, announced that the software company would not renew its contracts with ICE and CBP when they expire in 2020, after a former employee deleted code in protest of the company’s work with ICE. Earlier this month, GitHub CEO Nat Friedman, announced that he would donate $500,000 to non-profits who help communities dealing with deportation and detention, but has refused to back away from a new contract with ICE.

Tableau’s relationship with immigration enforcement remains largely opaque to outsiders, because public data does not reveal how funds involving third party contractors are distributed. But federal records show at least 12 contracts selling Tableau software to agencies within the DHS in 2019 alone—and over 30 sales of Tableau software to ICE since 2014, in contracts worth roughly $1.4 million.

It’s uncertain how much Tableau has profited off these third-party contracts with ICE and CBP, but it has certainly had the best of both worlds. Just like in the spyware and weapons industries, working with middlemen allows the company to sell their software products to immigration authorities while distancing themselves from the ways their technology is used.

Meanwhile, Tableau keeps no secrets about its contracts with the military. It boasts projects with the National Guard, the Department of Defense, the Navy, and the Airforce openly on its website. “Data analytics,” the company says, “helps the U.S. army win on a multi-domain field.”

Baker, the lead organizer, says by going public with their campaign, employees hope to “boost the ethical business movement across the software industry [and] inspire other companies to follow suit and make an impact.”

Tagged:
ice
border patrol
DHS
Tableau