DEAUVILLE, FRANCE – MAY 26, 2011 : Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg Press conference at the summit G8/G20 about new technologies – Deauville, France on May 26 2011
Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO / Shutterstock.com
During the Republican Party’s primary campaign, Donald Trump proposed the creation of a national registry for America’s 3.3 million Muslims. His proposal created quite a stir. Trump supporters were enthusiastic; opponents were horrified. Moral, legal, and ethical questions were raised. Questions were also raised about how such a registry might be built, and who would do the work?
With tongue firmly planted in cheek, San Francisco Chronicle columnist David Talbot pointed out that it will be so “easy to be enrolled” in a registry, that Muslims “won’t have to leave their homes or mosques to be signed up by the U.S. government. In fact,” he wrote in a piece headlined, “Tech titans, anti-Muslim Trump on same page,” “in most cases they won’t even know their names and personal information have been entered into a federal data bank.”
When Trump convened a technology summit, which included Apple CEO Tim Cook, Alphabet’s Larry Page, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk as guest — most of whom did not support his campaign — the meet-up appeared to conclude quite amiably.
Talbot, who is now writing three columns a week for the Chronicle, is the founder, former CEO and editor-in-chief of Salon, one of the first web magazines, and the author of a number of highly acclaimed books including Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years, Season of the Witch, and The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government.
He noted that prior to Trump’s meeting with a host of Silicon Valley corporate leaders, “a member of the Trump transition team [Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a notoriously anti-immigrant advocate] was photographed carrying a first-year plan that included a Muslim registration program as one of the new administration’s top priorities.” There has also been talk that some advisors, most notably Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., were urging Trump “to embrace the Orwellian, anti-Muslim surveillance measures adopted by the New York City Police Department after 9/11; a set of policies that “has been embroiled in court for years.”
Before the election, most Silicon Valley titans, with the exception of tech billionaire, and PayPal co-founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel, were openly opposed to, and unabashedly critical of, Trump. In the immediate aftermath of their meeting with Trump, the tech moguls were silent: “Not a word was uttered as the tech executives left Trump headquarters, flashing smiles and giving thumbs-up signs to the press,” Talbot reported.
According to Talbot, “Only two out of nine major tech companies — Twitter and Facebook — recently surveyed by the investigative publication The Intercept stated they would not participate in the creation of such a registry.”
But in the days since the technology summit, willingness to speak out against the registry has surfaced. In his report for The Independent, Jon Sharman noted that some companies are now declaring their unwillingness to build the registry. IBM (notorious for its collaboration with Hitler in cataloging Jews and “undesirables”) and Microsoft “have said they would refuse to help create a registry.”
A Microsoft spokesman told Buzzfeed: “We’ve been clear about our values. We oppose discrimination and we wouldn’t do any work to build a registry of Muslim Americans.” And IBM issued a statement saying it “would not work on this hypothetical project.”
In addition, more than 2000 individual workers from Silicon Valley and beyond have signed a pledge on neveragain.tech saying they would refuse to work on building a religious registry. The pledge reads in part:
We have educated ourselves on the history of threats like these, and on the roles that technology and technologists played in carrying them out. We see how IBM collaborated to digitize and streamline the Holocaust, contributing to the deaths of six million Jews and millions of others. We recall the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. We recognize that mass deportations precipitated the very atrocity the word genocide was created to describe: the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in Turkey. We acknowledge that genocides are not merely a relic of the distant past — among others, Tutsi Rwandans and Bosnian Muslims have been victims in our lifetimes.
Today we stand together to say: not on our watch, and never again.
Signers of the pledge are committing themselves to “refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.”
While companies and individuals explicitly refuse to build a Muslim-American registry, New York magazine’s Brian Feldman maintained in a recent piece titled “Silicon Valley Has Already, Accidentally, Created a Muslim Registry,” that such a registry already exists, albeit not in the form that Trump may be looking for, but perhaps just as useful.
Most of Silicon Valley’s most successful businesses are built on enormous data-collection operations. This is explicitly clear for the companies that are, at their core, advertising giants — Facebook and Google — but even consumer-tech companies like Apple and retail businesses like Amazon keep vast stores of data on their users. None of this data collection is sinister in intent, but it means that those companies know an enormous amount about you — and their other hundreds of millions of users.
And it doesn’t matter if you don’t explicitly note your religion (or sexuality, or political beliefs) in your usage. These companies spent the past year crowing about “artificial intelligence” and “deep neural networks” and “machine learning” — buzzwords that translate to processes that can deduce new information about users from existing data sets. In other words, no matter how coy you might be about your religion online, if you’re a regular user of Facebook or Google, those companies can likely accurately predict it anyway. Now these same organizations remain silent as the prospect grows that their tools may be used for nefarious purposes.
In the systems that already exist, deduction of a person’s identity from their Facebook preferences (gay rights sites), Amazon purchases (Hanukkah candles), Google info-seeking (queries about Islam), Map-questing (directions to the nearest Mosque), could provide dangerously skewered information to government agencies. As Feldman noted, no matter how much more [information] a Trump presidency might hypothetically want, the tech industry has already done much of the legwork,” [and] “the unfortunate truth is that the toothpaste is already out of the tube.”