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Microsoft workers call on the company to drop its police contracts

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As protests over police killings continue, hundreds of workers at Microsoft are calling for the company to cut ties with law enforcement customers and do more to show its commitment to anti-racism efforts. 

In an email obtained by the tech publication OneZero, Microsoft workers called for the company to pull its contracts with the Seattle police department and other law enforcement groups, as well as to support defunding and demilitarizing the Seattle police department and encourage more donations to groups doing anti-racist work.

The letter begins by describing days of nonstop police presence and disruption. "Every passing day, we feel that our fellow coworkers, managers, and leaders who live miles away outside of Seattle are severely disconnected to the violent reality thousands of people have been facing every single day since last Saturday. 24/7 helicopter noise, teargassing, flashbanging, rubber bullets, gun shots, and vans/buses filled with armed law enforcement," the letter reads.

"As if Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday night was not enough, once again our streets and homes have been filled with gas. Earlier in the day, a man drove his car into a crowd full of protestors and shot a protestor who was trying to stop him. He immediately fled to SPD who then politely escorted him to the precinct."

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The letter indicated that many of the employees signing on lived in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, which has recently become a focal point of protests. Some 250 Microsoft workers signed the document, according to OneZero, although the letter noted that not every signatory may agree with every demand.

Among the asks in the letter are that Microsoft leadership condemn the use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other police force against protesters; encourage donations to anti-racist charities; cancel Microsoft's contract with the Seattle Police Department and other law enforcement groups and call for the Seattle mayor's resignation over her inability to control the police.

The letter also called for Microsoft to move to a four-day workweek and to "expect at least 50% reduced productivity," noting that Google has already done so.

Microsoft has a long history of building technology for law enforcement, starting 15 years ago when the company rolled out a portal to help police track cybercrime. Microsoft's contract with London police has a starring role in a recent advertisement for Microsoft Teams, a remote collaboration tool. 

Previously, the company has also touted its connections with the New York Police Department, for whom the company created the Domain Awareness System, which New York City describes as "one of the world's largest networks of cameras, license plate readers, and radiological [sensors.]" 

Microsoft's "Coptivity" app, which the San Diego County Sheriff's Department uses, automates activities like running license plates and pulling drivers' mental-health and criminal backgrounds. The Orange County Sheriff's Department uses Microsoft Dynamics, a broad business services software and the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department uses Microsoft Office and Windows tablets, as do thousands of businesses and governments. 

Microsoft is also a sponsor (along with Amazon Web Services) of the International Association of Chiefs of Police conference set to take place in October.

The company declined to reveal details of the law enforcement contracts it currently has.

By way of response to the employee letter, a spokesperson pointed to a blog post CEO Satya Nadella authored last week, which read, in part:

"As a company, we need to look inside, examine our organization, and do better. I have heard from many employees over the past several days, expressing calls for action, calls for reflection, calls for change. My response is this: Yes. We have to act. And our actions must reflect the values of our company and be directly informed by the needs of the Black and African American community. We also have a responsibility to use our platform and resources intentionally to address systemic inequities in our communities and in society broadly. This is the work we need to do to have lasting impact."

Earlier this year, Microsoft workers called out the company for selling technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement as it arrested and detained immigrants, sometimes in violation of public health orders. Microsoft last year also won a $10 billion contract with the Pentagon, which is currently facing a court challenge.

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Microsoft is far from the only company to face fire over its links to law enforcement. Amazon, which issued a recent statement in support of Black Lives Matter, also sells neighborhood surveillance through its Ring camera, which currently contracts with more than 400 police departments, and has aggressively pitched its Rekognition facial surveillance technology despite research showing it has a high error rate for black faces.

Civil rights organizations on Tuesday called for Amazon to cut its ties with law enforcement, saying, "Amazon's surveillance empire is a critical technology backbone for police departments and ICE, making it complicit in the criminalization of Black people."

Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.

IBM, which also had developed a face-recognition product, on Monday said it would no longer sell or develop facial-recognition products over human rights concerns.

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