Google engineers refused to help build a new security tool to win ‘sensitive‘ military contracts

REVEALED: Google engineers refused to help build a security tool to win military contracts months BEFORE they revolted over a $250m per year Pentagon drone program

A group of software engineers refused to help build a new security technology that would have allowed the company to win ‘sensitive‘ military contracts, a new report revealed on Thursday.

The rebellion by influential coders dubbed the ‘Group of Nine‘, which led to the ‘air gap‘ program being suspended, was driven by ethical opposition to Google using its technological might to help the US federal government wage war.

The same Group of Nine then went on to inspire a much larger and widely reported boycott of Project Maven, a $250m-a-year scheme that allowed the Pentagon to examine drone footage using artificial intelligence.

The revelation about the decision to abandon air gap, reported by , is the latest sign of tension within Google between managers keen to pursue lucrative government defense contracts and staff who are wary of the ethical implications of such work.

Air gap would have been used on Google‘s cloud system – a form of computer storage which allows multiple users on several computers to access data over the Internet.

While cloud providers usually store data from multiple companies on a single server, air gap allows a company or agency to place all its data in isolation on one piece of hardware.

Government officials dealing with confidential information like this set-up because it allows them to know where all their data is being kept and makes it harder for hackers to steal it.

The boycott of air gap by Google‘s engineers is a blow to the firm, as it means rivals such as Microsoft Azure and Amazon Web Services – which have already developed the technology – will have an advantage when pitching for federal contracts.

One upcoming deal that Google may now struggle to win is the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, or JEDI, a Pentagon program worth upwards of $10 billion.

Google‘s chief technology executive, Urs Hölzle, suspended air gap after listening to the Group of Nine‘s ethical concerns. However, it is still possible the initiative could resume when the company finds other engineers who are happy to do the task.

The Group of Nine were feted by like-minded employees at Google‘s California headquarters after their revolt against air gap, building a head of steam that led to 4,000 staff signing a petition against Project Maven to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

At a meeting on June 1, Google Cloud chief Diane Greene pledged not to renew Maven when it expires in 2019.

Greene had recently assured employees that the technology would not ‘operate or fly drones‘ or be used ‘to launch weapons‘.

In a set of additional emails obtained by technology site , executives described how Google had wide-ranging plans for the AI drones.

The firm hoped to build a ‘Google-earth-like‘ surveillance system that enabled military analysts to ‘click on a building and see everything associated with it‘ and construct graphs of things like vehicles, people and other detailed features for ‘the entire city‘.

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‘We are still doing everything we can within these guidelines to support our government, the military and our veterans,‘ Greene wrote in a blog on June 7.

‘For example, we will continue to work with government organizations on cybersecurity, productivity tools, healthcare, and other forms of cloud initiatives.‘

However, the twin revolts over the development of air gap technology and then Project Maven suggest the company could face more opposition from staff when it pursues similar contracts in the future. 

Shares in Alphabet Inc, Google‘s parent company, dropped by 0.26% on Friday. 

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