What are the Project Nimbus protests really about?
Earlier this month, employees of Google and Amazon took to the streets to protest their employers’ work with the Israeli government through Project Nimbus, a cloud computing arrangement that was announced in early 2021. At one rally, a Google software engineer described Project Nimbus as an attempt on Google’s part to “try and become a military contractor,” while another organizer urged the crowd “to fight back, to make sure the technology we build is for good.”
Facial recognition technology is, of course, part of the issue. This summer, The Intercept reported that secret documents revealed that Google is providing the Israeli government with a cloud system that “would give Israel capabilities for facial detection, automated image categorization, object tracking, and even sentiment analysis that claims to assess the emotional content of pictures, speech, and writing.”
The report prompted action from at least one Google employee. Ariel Koren, a marketing manager for Google’s educational products, spent over a year trying to organize fellow employees against Project Nimbus, and ultimately resigned in protest. In her public resignation letter, she cited the above text from The Intercept to argue that it “is clear that the tools provided through Nimbus have the potential to expand Israel’s pattern of surveillance, racial profiling, and other forms of tech-assisted human rights violations.”
Koren succeeded in attracting media attention to the issue, with The New York Times reporting about her efforts to protest a “$1.2 billion agreement for Google and Amazon to supply Israel and its military with artificial intelligence tools and other computing services.”
But what exactly is Project Nimbus? Various media reports have described the program as being shrouded in mystery, while Google itself has framed it in banal, enterprise IT terms.