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Can the Student Led “Ethical Tech Movement” Take on Amazon and Raytheon Recruitment at UMass?

By Klara Ingersoll

Editor’s note: Klara has worked closely with the ethical tech movement of UMass.

Which tech companies get to recruit on public university campuses?

At the University of Massachusetts, Amherst’s College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) career fairs, big tech companies with blood-stained track records—who are profiting off of war crimes and violating human rights—have large booths to recruit students, whereas non-profit and impact-driven tech organizations and companies have gotten no tables at all.

UMass Amherst senior, Andrew Cunningham was upset by the limited options at the CICS career fairs, particularly by the inclusion of the three tech giants Raytheon, Amazon, and Wayfair, so he organized a protest at the fair called “It’s Not Just a Day Job” on September 26, 2019. Cunningham and 20 other students lined up outside the doors of the fair in the lower level of UMass Amherst’s Student Center. The student protesters held signs saying “Ethical Tech Exists,” “Amazon Co-operates with ICE,” and “Don’t Be Evil,” and informed their fellow students flowing in the doors about the crimes that some of the recruiting companies were implicated in. The protestors also asked their peers attending the careers fair to remain vigilant about the ethics of the places they would go on to work for. “We had good conversations with students, many of whom had never heard of the concept of ethical tech, or considered other kinds of work. I also made connections with teachers who are interested in highlighting ethical tech,” reflected Cunningham.

Student protestors were drawing attention to the complicity of these three tech giants in either directly or indirectly assisting the violation of human rights.

Recent news reports reveal that Raytheon has been profiting through supplying missiles to Saudi Arabia that have been used to kill at least 212 civilians in Yemen since March 2015.

Amazon workers have led international strikes on Prime Day calling attention to their exhaustingly long shifts, short breaks, and dehumanizing monitoring systems – where workers are monitored by  ‘scan guns’ that report to managers for ‘too much time off task,’ in warehouses. “We are humans, not robots,” is a sign that workers in Amazon fulfillment center in Minnesota held up at a protest in March. Reports have shown that employees have been fired for taking bathroom breaks. Muslim workers have been denied prayer time. Additionally, the online giant has been criticized for its institutional cloud platform, Amazon Web Services, which has held the data and secrets of nefarious government agencies like the CIA and ICE.

Wayfair has garnered criticism from the inside out. In June 2019, Boston Wayfair Employees walked out of their offices and signed an open letter protesting the company’s contracts with Immigration Customs & Enforcement after it was revealed the company was manufacturing furniture for the abusive detention facilities on the Southern border.

“When speaking to the students at the fair, it sounded like these ethical questions were outside of a lot of people’s considerations, which reflects in the CS curriculum,” said Eva Tipps, a junior biology major who protested with the Students for Ethical Tech at the career fair.

Cunningham reports that there is only one required ethics course in the computer science program at UMass, and this is a gap that he is working to address with Dr. Michelle Trim, the Informatics Program Associate Director, in creating a publication or platform for students to write about questions of ethics in STEM.

But what is ethical tech? The ethical tech movement, which Cunningham’s group advocates, recognizes that the tech industry is not grounded in a moral framework, but rather operates on one of extraction and exploitation. The ethical tech movement recognizes that the tech industry has violated digital and human rights on a large scale, and works to counter this.

Access Now is one organization that is a part of this movement, selected by students, which they hope to see represented at a future career fair. Access Now recognizes that digital rights are under attack, and provides resources for what it calls “users at risk: including civil society groups, activists, journalists, and human rights defenders.” It does this by “provid[ing] comprehensive, real-time technical assistance to “defend and extend the digital rights of users at risk around the world,” through policy, advocacy, grant allocation to grassroots organizations protecting digital rights emphasizing an intersectional approach.

There is not one definition of ethical tech, however many of the facets of the movement stand against tech companies’ cooperation with arms dealing, working with the xenophobic, authoritarian, child caging I.C.E. agency, and facilitating state surveillance.

Following the protest, the UMass Careers Department approached Cunningham, asking him for Students for Ethical Tech’s input on future career fairs. Students for Ethical Tech requested both an inclusion of at least 10% nonprofit and B-Corp representation at all following Fairs. (B-corps are companies that “balance purpose and profit” to meet a standard for environmental and social impact) as well as a funded workshop series shedding light onto different issues that ethically minded tech companies and organizations are working on. While “ethically-minded company” may seem like a contradiction in terms, these students are trying to highlight companies that mitigate harm. This workshop series would be collaboratively planned with students and outside ethical tech organizations.

“My CICS Careers team is dedicated to expanding our list of mission-driven organizations, not just for career fairs but for all types of recruiting opportunities,” said the department’s director, Brian Krussell, who also said his team has since begun reaching out to employers that Students for Ethical Tech requested. They are looking to expand the list, and are open to ideas from the community about more ethically minded companies and organizations to partner with.

The Students for Ethical Tech suggested a long list of organizations and companies that they hope to see at future CICS Career fairs. The Center for Democracy and Technology was one they suggested, which works to protect cybersecurity, the open internet, free expression online, and resist government surveillance. Upturn “advances equity and justice in the design, governance, and use of technology” through research and advocacy. The ACLU has started a campaign to ban facial recognition software (Northampton was the latest city to implement a ban).  AI Now is another, describing itself an “interdisciplinary research center dedicated to understanding the social implications of artificial intelligence.” And Ecosia,  a search engine that uses ad revenue to plant trees, combating deforestation.

Professor M.J. Peterson told The Shoestring, “the basic role of universities, including UMass Amherst, is to be institutional spaces within which research, teaching, learning, and debate on points of disagreement are carried out at a high level of rigor, sophistication, and mutual respect.  That includes encouraging faculty, staff, and students to think about ethical implications of what they are doing, inquiring and debating to assess the full merits of various ethical positions being advocated, and helping members acquire habits of mind that help them apply ethics in their own lives as individuals, family members, job holders, and citizens.”

The University of Massachusetts, Amherst boasts many career fairs—in different departments such as public policy, education, architecture, and in different professional sectors, such as the nonprofit, public, as well as private sectors—aiming to place people in lines of work to make a difference in the world. Even a quick glance at the list of the participating businesses reveals the fair’s skew towards sales giants and defense contractors.

Job fairs in college exist to provide opportunities to students in different lines of work, and demonstrate the values of a university—acting as feeder between its walls and the professional world.

To this point, the University’s CICS job fair has thus far demonstrated either a complete lack of understanding regarding how the companies allowed to participate financially depend on abuses of human rights, surveillance, and speculative imperial warfare; or worse yet, they, like the companies themselves, have been happy to turn a blind eye to these realities. If the campus’ ethical tech movement is to be fully successful, the University must be compelled by students to answer the fundamental question that these companies so artfully dodge with clever accounting and creative PR: whose side are you on?

“We’re only just starting. We’ll need all the help we can get,” said Andrew Cunningham, of the Students for Ethical Tech at UMass Amherst.

Klara Ingersoll is a student at UMass Amherst who is working to connect art and political action. Photo courtesy of Nuclear Ban U.S.

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