Active Hackathon

Fighting The Good Fight: Whistleblowers Who Have Raised Voices Against Tech Giants

A few among us understand the gravity of these dangers and fearlessly raise voices against them, often at risk to their own lives, livelihoods, and safety.
Tech Whistleblower

“In a room where people unanimously maintain a conspiracy of silence, one word of truth sounds like a pistol shot”

–Czeslaw Milosz

The tech world’s rapid growth is great news for everyone. But in the race to develop the next most innovative technology, to gain profit quickly and easily, companies ignore the ethical issues which can potentially endanger persons and communities. These dangers are often serious and can impact the whole make-up of society.

Since these dangers build up and compound over time, they are often ignored by common people. But few among us understand the gravity of these dangers and fearlessly raise voices against them, often risking their own lives, livelihoods, and safety—case in point, Edward Snowden, who disclosed several surveillance programs run by the NSA through leaked documents.

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This article lists some of the most prominent tech whistleblowers who have caused major disruption in recent years.

Frances Haugen

Former Facebook employee, Frances Haugen, kicked up a storm and confirmed already widespread beliefs about Facebook’s role in propagating harmful content that could hamper people’s harmonious relationships with themselves and their surrounding communities. Haugen gathered documents from her former employer that formed the basis of The Wall Street Journal’s Facebook Files series.

Haugen is an algorithm specialist and worked as a product manager at Facebook for two years before resigning. She said that she had grown frustrated with the company’s lack of action against its potential harm. She mentioned she joined Facebook with high hopes of helping the company fix its flaws, but she soon grew sceptical that her team could actually bring some tangible results. Her team had just a handful of resources, and she felt that the company prioritised growth and user engagement above its own research of the platform’s flaws.

Haugen helped WSJ gather documents as well as interviews with current and former Facebook employees. This investigation led to revelations on how the company rules favour the elite, how algorithms used foster discord, and even about human traffickers and drug cartels using the platform unabashedly. Sister concern Instagram was also found to have a grave effect on teenage girls’ mental health. In October, Haugen also testified before the US Senate.

Timnit Gebru

Last year in November, AI researcher Timnit Gebru was ousted by her employer — Google. Gebru was the co-leader of a team that studied the social and ethical ramifications of AI. As per Gebru’s account, she had co-authored a research paper on the known pitfalls and ethical risks associated with large language models, some of which helped power Google’s own search engine. Before the ouster, Gebru said she was issued a command from the company to either retract the paper or drop her and other team members’ names from the list of authors.

Notably, the paper was initially passed by the company’s internal review process and was submitted to a prominent conference. She was later informed that a group of product leaders and other associates of Google had deemed the paper unacceptable. 

The ousting of the AI expert angered thousands of Google staffers. Many claimed that she “faced defensiveness, racism, gaslighting, research censorship, and now retaliatory firing.” 

An already vocal voice on ethical AI, she has explored several ways to combat biases perpetuated by faulty algorithms like racism and sexism. Timnit often speaks on the need for big tech to be held accountable for the tech it produces. She is also the founder of Black in AI, an affinity group that advocates ethical and anti-discriminatory practices in tech.

Magaret Mitchell

Just a few months after Gebru’s ouster, her colleague Margaret Mitchell was fired from Google. The firing came on the heels of her public letter that she wrote about Gebru’s ouster. In her letter, she called the decision to fire Timnit to be a ‘really, really, really terrible decision’. She also wrote, “The idea is that to define AI research now, we must look to where we want to be in the future, working backwards from ideal futures to this moment, right now, in order to figure out what to work on today. This gives rise to an approach that can only function well with the inclusion of diverse experiences. And such inclusion can only function well if the individuals belong and are treated that way.”

As per the company, Mitchell was fired on the grounds of violating security policies. She was reportedly collecting evidence on Timnit’s unjust firing. In August this year, Mitchell announced that she would be joining conversational AI company Hugging Face to lead their data governance efforts.

Meredith Whittaker

Meredith Whittaker is a former Google employee and the founder of AI Now Institute. Whittaker was employed at Google for about a decade before leading the 2018 Google Walkout, where 20,000 other employees around the world protested the company’s failure in tackling sexual harassment complaints. Whittaker also sent an internal company message saying she was being targeted after she spoke up against the AI ethics council that brought Kay Coles James, president of the right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation. The council was dissolved soon after. Whittaker quit the company in July 2019. After leaving the company, she wrote a huge blog saying that big tech companies were gaining ‘significant and largely unchecked power’ that could impact the world in pursuit of profit.

Whittaker has since then set up the AI Now Institute at NYU, which is a research unit tasked with investigating the implication of AI in daily life. She continues to remain an outspoken critic of her former employer. Whittaker will now join FTC (Federal Trade Commission) in an AI policy role.

Internet Freedom Foundation

Internet Freedom Foundation is an India-based advocacy group that was born out of the SaveTheInternet.in movement for net neutrality. IFF is working to ensure that technology is used without violating fundamental rights accorded to every citizen. One of their goals is to ensure that people can use the internet with liberties guaranteed under the Constitution. “Our expertise in free speech, digital surveillance and privacy, net neutrality will help us to champion freedom in the digital age,” their website reads.

In their most recent action, IFF has published a 12-point fact check of the government’s FAQ’s on Part II of the IT Rules 2021 released this week. IFF mentions that the IT Rules seriously undermine individual privacy.

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Shraddha Goled
I am a technology journalist with AIM. I write stories focused on the AI landscape in India and around the world with a special interest in analysing its long term impact on individuals and societies. Reach out to me at shraddha.goled@analyticsindiamag.com.

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