Technology

IBM’s Embrace Of Trump Reflects Silicon Valley’s Wider Ethical Struggle


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It would be foolish to say that selling technology to the government isn’t, at best, an ethical grey area — no matter who’s in office. The PRISM scandal, which broke under the Obama administration, revealed that Americans essentially have no privacy from their own government, even if they’ve never so much as jaywalked. The Department of Justice attempted to circumvent Apple’s privacy protections, also under Obama, and the groundwork for that move was laid in part by the Patriot Act, passed under George W. Bush.

It’s well known that the tech industry relies heavily on immigration to fill its constant job openings and fuel its growth. It’s estimated that at any given time, there are a quarter of a million computer science jobs alone open in the United States, and there simply aren’t enough qualified Americans to go around. So it’s no surprise that the budding rebellion of the tech industry against the government has advanced rapidly since start of the Trump administration.

Most recently, a sprawling list of tech companies — even those with CEOs on Trump’s economic advisory council — signed onto an amicus brief against Trump’s travel ban on refugees. There was one notable name missing from that list, however: IBM.

In fact, IBM’s commitment to the current regime extends far beyond just avoiding signing onto a brief. The company’s CEO Ginni Rometty wrote Trump a letter congratulating him and offering IBM’s services for his policy goals, and has remained on Trump’s economic advisory committee over the objections of her her own employees, some of whom have publicly quit the company over the issue. Other members of the council — like Elon Musk — have faced similar criticism, and one member, Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, quit after customer outrage triggered a campaign to boycott Uber.

Why is IBM remaining despite the urgings of its own staff to step away? According to Gizmodo’s coverage of the company, which has been heavily critical of the move, Rometty is hoping Trump will privilege IBM for government contracts some employees object to:

The next shoe to drop, according to IBM employees? The so-called Muslim registry—something that wouldn’t need to be a “registry” in any sense of the word to actually track the movements and opinions of any number of Americans and foreign visitors based on religion.

It’s worth noting that Trump has yet to explicitly state he’s ordering a Muslim registry to be built, and has said varying things on the subject, including that he has no desire to do it. That said, the recently issued travel ban, which was blocked by the courts in part because he explicitly called it a “Muslim ban” in public, has put many Americans on edge.

For IBM, in particular, the issue requires careful consideration. Unlike the travel ban, there’s no guarantee that if Trump decides to build a Muslim surveillance apparatus it would be visible (or that IBM would even know what it was building). Nor is it certain that the courts would rule that the database couldn’t be built. America has actually assembled something resembling a Muslim registry before. Created during the Bush administration, the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System, or NSEERS, required immigrants from 25 different countries, all but one a Muslim majority nation and all in Asia or Africa, to register with the government. It was suspended in 2011, thanks in part to the US-VISIT program — which offered more nuanced protocols. The stated goal was to capture terrorists, and it didn’t find a single one.

IBM is not the only Silicon Valley company faced with this issue. Worried by Rometty’s letter, The Intercept asked eight tech companies if they’d help Trump build a Muslim registry of some sort. Of the eight, only Twitter said it wouldn’t. But IBM’s history weighs heavily, here: The company’s machines were instrumental to the Third Reich planning the Holocaust, a fact which IBM has been open about.

Obviously, NSEERS didn’t end in concentration camps or mass killings, and it’s all but impossible that even a direct revival of the program would lead to such a thing. It did, however, lead to thousands of immigrants being questioned or detained despite a total lack of evidence they were involved in terrorism or even criminal activity. It’s troublesome to imagine what a similar database might look like, as created by the Trump regime.

The crossroads IBM sits at is the dilemma faced by Silicon Valley in miniature, and it would only be slightly different had Hillary Clinton taken office January 20th. One can easily replace “Muslim” with quite literally anything in a world where increasingly every decision we make can be tracked, analyzed, and chewed over by marketing departments and law enforcement alike. And in that world, whether you can enable that, and whether you should, is a question we’re going to have to find answers for.

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