Google defends CBP work after employees question contract

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(Oct 31): A top Google executive defended a contract with the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency after employees at the Internet giant asked about the deal.

Workers raised the issue after a report last week sparked concern that Google technology may be helping the Trump administration’s controversial immigration policies.

The deal doesn’t include any work on border enforcement, Thomas Kurian, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Google’s cloud business, told employees during a virtual townhall meeting. He described the agreement as a small test contract that the CBP is using to explore whether it can use Google tech to identify fraud, detect drug smuggling and translate travel documents.

“We are not working on any projects associated with immigration enforcement at the southern border,” Kurian said. “We have spoken directly with Customs and Border Patrol, and they have confirmed that they are not testing our products for those purposes.” A Google spokesperson declined to comment beyond Kurian’s statement.

The Intercept reported last week that Google was listed as having a US$200,000 contract with CBP on an internal agency document.

Google employees and managers have debated for several years over whether the company should sell technology to governments and the military. In 2018, Google ended a project with the Pentagon to use its artificial intelligence (AI) software to analyse drone images after a backlash from employees.

Alphabet Inc’s Google is trying to win lucrative contracts for its cloud business, an important area for the company’s future growth. That often means working with government agencies. At the same time, US President Donald Trump’s policies on immigration have encouraged some employees to speak out when they think Google might be supporting border enforcement.

Google executives have tried to walk that fine line, saying certain work is off limits but otherwise pursuing government agencies as customers, including the CBP.

That’s not good enough for some activists. “We simply cannot take CBP’s word for it. We’ve all seen what CBP is capable of doing at the border under the guise of ‘security,’” said Jacinta Gonzalez, the senior campaign director for Mijente, a national organisation that opposes Trump’s border policies. “For Google employees to take these words as evidence is merely an excuse not to do a full and thorough investigation.”

The company’s cloud business reported revenue of US$3.4 billion in the third quarter, up 45% from the same period last year.

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