Microsoft Corp

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company headquarters
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ISSUES

One of the world’s largest IT companies. Provides tools and infrastructure used by the US government to surveil immigrant communities and to manage prisons. Divested AnyVision for surveilling Palestinians but keeps providing services to the Israeli police.

Microsoft Corporation is a U.S.-based multinational technology company. In 2021, it reached a $2 trillion market capitalization, making it one of the largest companies in the world. As of 2020, the company had 163,000 employees around the world and annual revenue of $143 billion.

Microsoft is a major U.S. government contractor. It provides services to the U.S. federal government both directly, worth at least $3.6 billion during 2004-2021, and through third parties, worth at least $14.3 billion during the same period. As of August 2021, Microsoft was the second-largest provider of cloud computing to the U.S. federal government, trailing only Amazon.

US Deportations and Immigration Enforcement

From 2004 to 2021, Microsoft signed over 350 contracts worth $496 million with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), including its agencies Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Microsoft also provides services to DHS through a variety of third parties, most notably Dell, for contracts worth at least another $1.2 billion during the same period. These services range from simple Windows operating system installations to data hosting in Azure and data management operations. 

Microsoft provides IT infrastructure to DHS through its government cloud infrastructure service, Microsoft Azure Government. Some of the databases and case management tools used by ICE to track, monitor, and deport immigrants are hosted on Microsoft Azure. While it is not public information which specific ICE systems are hosted on Azure, in 2018, Microsoft boasted that its Azure services enable ICE to “process data on edge devices or utilize deep learning capabilities to accelerate facial recognition and identification.” The company added it was “proud to support this work with our mission-critical cloud.” Microsoft later walked back that statement in response to public and employee outrage.

An analysis by Mijente, the National Immigration Project, and the Immigrant Defense Project suggests that Microsoft Azure is the second most important cloud platform for DHS, after Amazon’s AWS. As of July 2021, only five cloud services were authorized to serve DHS with the “high-level” security accreditation reserved for the kind of sensitive data contained in DHS databases and case management software. Two of these services are Microsoft's.

According to U.S. federal contracting documents, as of 2020, ICE’s cloud system hosting infrastructure uses AWS and Azure. In January 2021 solicitation documents, ICE stated that it required IT services to “continue to host existing ICE systems that are currently deployed in AWS and Microsoft Azure.” In April 2020, CBP began looking for IT providers for its own cloud system that would include access to services from Microsoft and Amazon.

In 2018, ICE started working on a new big data system called Repository for Analytics in a Virtualized Environment (RAVEn). The system is designed to analyze large datasets so that ICE could more easily identify targets and as well as patterns and connections between entities and events. The platform has access to several law enforcement and commercial databases, and it can connect photographs, videos, documents, text, biometrics, and other types of information with machine learning models. Booz Allen Hamilton has been ICE’s prime contractor for RAVEn since 2018, but the contract was up for rebidding in 2021. Over 200 companies, including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have shown interest in developing the system.

In addition to Microsoft Azure, ICE also uses Github, the Microsoft-owned code repository and coder collaboration site used by over 37 million software developers worldwide. According to a leaked internal email, ICE began using Github in 2016, renewing the contract through third parties in 2019 and again in 2020.

Since 2018, Microsoft’s employees have questioned the company’s relationship with ICE and CBP, to which the company’s CEO Satya Nadella answered that Microsoft was “…not working with the US government on any projects related to separating children from their families at the border."

US Prisons and Prison Labor

Microsoft has provided services to the U.S. federal prison system since at least 2007. The U.S. federal prison system has spent at least $13.6 million, from 2007 to 2021, on Microsoft-related products. Microsoft is also listed on Worth Rises' 2020 database, The Prison Industry: Mapping Private Sector Players, for providing services to prisons in Florida.

In 2020, Federal Prison Industries, the federal prison labor program also known as UNICOR, signed a contract with Microsoft worth a potential $75 million. The contracting documents specify that UNICOR “is heavily vested in Microsoft as a standard for our operating systems on workstations and servers and for Office Automation tools.” UNICOR claimed that only Microsoft was capable of providing “planning and infrastructure advisory services that reduce the cost of systems management and support and keep Enterprise systems operational for the [agency].” In the 1990s, Microsoft was using prison labor to package some of its products through another company, but in 2018 committed to tightening controls on the use of prison labor by its suppliers.

In addition to providing IT services directly to the prison industry, Microsoft has also created its own software to deploy widespread surveillance for prisons by using license plate readers and CCTVs, body cameras, as well as other “disparate sensor[s] and system data,” called the Digital Prison Management Solution.

Since 2009, Microsoft and its commercial partner Tribridge have offered a “corrections management suite” called Offender360, which tracks people as they go through the prison system. In 2009, the Illinois Department of Corrections modernized its IT infrastructure using Microsoft’s products, which track the physical location and identifiable information of people incarcerated in the state (such as religion, tattoos, aliases, etc.), label them according to their behavior, and run mass searches on every target that has been in the prison system. All of the information stored and being fed into this system can be used against people during parole hearings.

Microsoft also adapted its Offender360 product specifically for juvenile prisons. This system, called Youth360, augments Offender360 by linking to the school and health care systems. This may have a disproportionate effect on children of color and marginalized communities, contributing to what has been dubbed by activists as the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Microsoft provides another system called Pretrial360, a case management and predictive analytics software for courts.

Microsoft offers these products to other countries as well. It has provided U.K. authorities with a “next generation offender tracking” system powered by Azure. In 2021, North Wales Police began soliciting an Enterprise system upgrade worth a potential $16 million for the North Wales Police that would use Azure. In 2016, Microsoft published a blog post in which it envisioned the “prisons of the future” in the U.K., claiming overcrowding and cost issues could be overcome by a privately owned, data-driven prison system that would automate tracking and flag inmates and persons going through the justice system with tools such as artificial intelligence, drones, and CCTV.

Mass Surveillance Technologies for Local Law Enforcement

Through Azure Government cloud computing business, Microsoft provides high-tech surveillance and facial recognition technology to local U.S. law enforcement agencies. For example, the company’s Coptivity software, used for example by the San Diego Sheriff’s Department, is a conversation mobile app powered with Artificial Intelligence (AI) that uses voice to deliver immediate and automatic assistance to officers on patrol without an operator on the other side of the call. Coptivity includes instant access to a vehicle’s registration status and the owner’s criminal and mental health background.

Microsoft created another surveillance platform for police, the Domain Awareness System (DAS), initially used by the New York Police Department and later adopted by law enforcement in Brazil and Singapore. DAS integrates disparate sources of information to assist law enforcement investigations in real-time. It allows law enforcement to track and watch the movements of people throughout the entire city by ingesting data from closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras and automatic license plate readers (ALPRs), and crossing these data against police records such as arrests, 911 calls, complaints, and warrants. DAS also performs video analytics, automatic pattern recognition, and predictive policing, and it has an associated mobile application for NYPD officers.

Other local law enforcement agencies have also signed up for Microsoft’s services. For example, in 2018 the company boasted how its Azure platform helps the State of Georgia fight gangs. Microsoft has worked with Georgia-based company Formulytics to provide the state with the technical backbone for its Anti-Gang Network. As with DAS, Microsoft stores and analyzes vast amounts of data, and has helped Georgia create over 25,000 “investigative profiles of gang members and identify tens of thousands of connections across the State.” ICE relies on local and state databases such as this one to conduct deportation efforts.

In another example, Orange County Sheriff's Department began using in 2012 a software called Microsoft Dynamics that helps agents capture, identify, and summarize a wide range of information, from keeping track of complaints to complex case management of how a person moves within the justice system.

In 2020, Microsoft President Brad Smith stated that the company will not sell its facial recognition software for police use until there is a national law, “grounded in human rights,” that governs its use. He also said the company does not currently sell its technology to police departments in the U.S. This came after public pressure influenced mass surveillance technology providers IBM and Amazon to make public statements on police use of their facial recognition technology services.

Divesting AnyVision and Other Involvement in the Israeli Occupation of Palestine

Microsoft is deeply invested in the Israeli high-tech industry, which has close ties to the Israeli military. The company’s first-ever R&D center outside the U.S. opened in Israel in 1991. Over the years, Microsoft Israel has collaborated with the Israeli military on multiple occasions, for example in converting Microsoft’s commercial technologies for military use and designing applications specifically for military operations.

In 2002, the Israeli Ministry of Defense signed a $35 million contract with Microsoft for software licensing and cybersecurity products for the Israeli military and other security forces. The purchase, which was described as “strategic” and was the largest software licensing contract in Israel at the time, was mostly funded by U.S. taxpayers through the Foreign Military Sales program.

In addition, the Israeli police is using Microsoft Azure cloud computing for all its databases and systems. The Israeli police attested in 2020 contracting documents, that working with Microsoft “is necessary for the continued function of [its] operational systems, some of which are classified.” Microsoft reportedly claimed that its software “helps Israeli police intelligence officers complete data searches in seconds.” This contract is set to expire when the Israeli government switches to a unified cloud service for all government sectors. Microsoft also bid on this project, dubbed Nimbus, but lost to Amazon and Google.

At least since 2014, Microsoft has been acquiring Israeli high-tech startup companies such as Adallom, Aorato, CyberX, and Hexadite, all of which reportedly use technologies originally developed for the Israeli military. Adallom, for example, uses Israeli military-developed “technologies that were used to combat terrorism using machine intelligence and anomaly detection.”

In 2020, Microsoft divested its shares in AnyVision, an Israeli company whose technology is powering a mass surveillance apparatus on the Palestinian civilian population in the occupied West Bank. Microsoft’s venture capital fund M12 made the multimillion-dollar investment in AnyVision a year earlier. The divestment was prompted by a multi-stakeholder campaign demanding that Microsoft live up to its own principles on facial recognition technologies and an official Microsoft investigation into AnyVision’s involvement in mass surveillance of the occupied Palestinian population.

AnyVision’s main surveillance product, Better Tomorrow, uses facial biometrics and artificial intelligence to identify specific people within large crowds. This technology has been integrated during 2018-2019 into Israel’s illegal military checkpoints in the occupied West Bank. AnyVision reportedly has another, more secretive project, using a network of thousands of cameras deployed “deep inside the West Bank” that places the Palestinian civilian population under persistent surveillance. The project reportedly includes vehicle tracking using license plate readers and has led to the arrest of hundreds of Palestinians in 2018 alone.

AnyVision’s technology is used by governments and private actors in at least 44 other countries. Among others, the company sells its technology to state actors in Russia and was expanding its operations in Hong Kong in the summer of 2019, as facial recognition technologies were documented being used to repress protests there. The U.S. Navy also bought “AnyVision equipment” in 2019, and the company’s CEO said it employs lobbyists in the U.S. Congress to “explain why artificial intelligence is a good thing.”

In 2020, following Microsoft's divestment, AnyVision split its activities into two companies, a military and a commercial one. Some of AnyVision's shareholders formed a joint venture with Israeli state-owned military contractor Rafael to create SightX, a company that focuses on the military applications of AnyVision's technology. AnyVision itself reportedly pivoted to focus "solely on the commercial market." In 2021, an AnyVision top executive stated that despite Microsoft's divestment, the two companies continued to have "a viable commercial relationship," adding, "we're still working with them on Azure. It's all good."

Political Influence

From 1999 to July 2021, Microsoft spent $291 million in lobbying to influence the U.S. federal government on at least 4,600 issues, including cloud computing, the role of technology in defense, intelligence and surveillance, defense appropriations and quantum computing, law enforcement to data, facial recognition, privacy, encryption and artificial intelligence, data surveillance, among many other issues. 

Microsoft has also lobbied at the state level, where it has tried to influence state legislatures to approve controversial data privacy bills. According to a Connecticut state senator, when a privacy bill was introduced in 2020, the building was “…filled with every single lobbyist I’ve ever known in Hartford, hired by the companies to defeat the bill.” Microsoft spent $124,000 on lobbying in Connecticut between 2019 and 2020, making it the second-highest spender on lobbying in the state during that period. In 2020, a controversial facial recognition bill was introduced in the state of Washington, which was highly opposed by activists and civil rights organizations that argued the bill would further deepen misidentification of women, gender minorities, and communities of color. 

Microsoft has a Political Action Committee (PAC) that has spent $21.3 million in campaign contributions between 1988 and July 2021, to both Republican and Democratic members of the U.S. Congress through direct contributions and other PACs. During the Trump administration, at least 18 appointees worked for a Big Tech company, eight of which came from Microsoft. Some top officials in the Biden administration formerly advised Microsoft on policy and U.S affairs, including Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence.

Other Controversies

In October 2019, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) awarded Microsoft its Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud contract. The contract, worth up to $10 billion over a period of 10 years, includes cloud services for basic storage, as well as for artificial intelligence and mission-critical support. A DoD official said the JEDI program “is truly about increasing the lethality of our department.” In 2018, a group of Microsoft employees called on the company to not bid on the JEDI project, asking that their work not be used for waging war, ending lives, and enhancing lethality. Google had previously dropped out of bidding on the contract over similar concerns. 

In June 2021, the Department of Defense canceled the $10 billion JEDI contract. JEDI had been long delayed because Amazon (which was competing against Microsoft to sign the JEDI contract) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. federal government for political interference, claiming Microsoft had earned the deal as a result of “outside influence”.

This profile was last updated on
1 September 2021