Project Nimbus: Google’s controversial alliance with the Israeli government

Google, again, in the spotlight. And this time due to criticism from a group of employees against the signing of a contract between the technology giant and the Israeli army. Employees of Jewish, Muslim and Arab origin, among others, have demonstrated in their respective offices in different areas of the US, such as New York, Seattle and North Carolina, to show their rejection of the Nimbus Project. An important contract of 1,200 million dollars that means the alliance between Google, Amazon and the Israeli government and army.

What is the Nimbus Project

According to US media reports, the goal of Nimbus is to provide Google with advanced artificial intelligence and machine learning for the Israeli government. State-of-the-art knowledge that could be used by Israel to increase digital surveillance in the occupied Palestinian territories. Also, such a contract would also prevent Google from refusing to offer services to specific Israeli government entitiessuch as the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), if they so require.

Google is delighted with the signing of Nimbus, despite the rejection of part of its employees. And this has been stated by a company spokeswoman, Shannon Newberry: “We are proud that Google Cloud has been selected by the Israeli government to provide public cloud services to help digitally transform the country (…) the project includes making Google Cloud Platform available to government agencies for everyday workloads such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education.” Although he wanted to make it clear that “it is not aimed at highly confidential or classified workloads”, as critics of the project suggest.

The historical bad relationship between Israel – an ally of the US – and Palestine is, of course, at the heart of the matter. When Google announced the launch of the Nimbus Project, in May 2021, the situation between the two countries was at one of its worst moments in the last decade. With world human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International criticizing Israel’s attitude of causing an absolute “apartheid”.

One of the employees and spokespersons most critical of the project has gone on a tour of American television where he has not stopped criticizing the technology giant at any time: “At the time this contract was announced, Google had a very strict blocking of information and has created a culture in which it is impossible to have any kind of transparency as a worker (…) What is technology being used for? What are the actual parameters of this project? What are you going to do with this technology?” Words that came to jeopardize the position of the worker who, however, got 700 Google employees and 25,000 supporters to sign a petition demanding that Google ensure that he continues in his position. In the end, he was not fired, but he did leave Google due to ethical principles and a hostile environment.

Project Nimbus is not the first controversial project to shake Google’s relations with its employees. Already in 2018, the Maven Project also raised blisters. This time, it was a Google contract with the government for surveillance of the Pentagon with drones. Dozens of employees came to quit the project and even academics criticized this collaboration, such as former Stanford adviser and Google co-founder Larry Page. The company ultimately said it would not renew the contract and published a set of AI principles intended to serve as ethical guides.

To his detractors, Nimbus betrays one of the key policies advocated by Google, that of “not collecting and using information for surveillance in violation of internationally accepted norms (…) as well as not violating the widely accepted principles of international law and human rights”. The announcement of Project Nimbus in 2021, and Google’s bid for the Pentagon’s $9 billion flagship cloud project, worries some workers who fear that the company significantly expands its collaboration with entities with a military objective.

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