Current Affairs

It’s Time to Bust the Tech Talent Pipeline

And these activists have a plan.

At the oldest university in Scotland, Mallika Balakrishnan and Jacob Zionts passed out flyers at a job fair on campus a few months before the pandemic hit. The small white sheets of paper read: 

Amazon and Palantir provide the technology that helped United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) put thousands of immigrants in concentration camps and deport thousands more this year alone. Use your power as a St Andrews student to take a stance against concentration camps and inhumane deportation. DON’T APPLY. DON’T STAND IN LINE.

Balakrishnan and Zionts, both working toward masters’ degrees in moral, political, and legal philosophy at the University of St. Andrews, stood near the Amazon and Palantir recruitment tables. The recruiters were young, fit, and “rhetorically gifted.” Some from Palantir, who were giving away T-shirts, were even willing to discuss the pair’s concerns. To Zionts, it was clear they had been coached beforehand. 

The activists kept up their polite pressure regardless. Without blockading the tables or loudly protesting, they also engaged with students after they spoke with recruiters. The two were eventually asked to leave, after being told the presenters had paid for the right to be there. 

The 2019 job fair at the ancient university on the coast of northeast Britain came just after 680 people were arrested by immigration officials across the Atlantic Ocean in Mississippi as part of the largest U.S. workplace raid in at least a decade. At the time, American protesters, organized by a U.S.-based nonprofit group called Mijente, used the moment to draw attention to Palantir’s significant role in the arrests. The campaign “No Tech for ICE” showed Palantir’s FALCON Tipline—a tool used by ICE agents to create profiles of undocumented immigrants—was used to investigate, arrest, prosecute, and deport hundreds of workers. As an Investor Alliance of Human Rights report found, “ICE would not be able to properly function without Palantir.” 

Palantir, the CIA-backed software startup, provides near-omniscient “crime-predicting” military surveillance for U.S. intelligence operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has also built technology accused of creating racist feedback loops in “predictive policing” software. The company, which recently went public, was co-founded by Peter Thiel—the Trump-backing venture capitalist billionaire who, in a display of comic book-style villainy, literally wants to inject himself with young people’s blood

The Mijente campaign also focused on the willing participation of tech companies like Amazon Web Services, Northrop Grumman, Microsoft, and Salesforce that “feed the detention and deportation machinery but also policing and military operations, endangering the safety and security of communities already vulnerable to criminalization, from the Bronx to Compton to the southern border.” The protests were something of a landmark moment in the effort to disentangle higher education institutions from violent “Big Tech.” More than a thousand students across the U.S. pledged not to work for Palantir while it was partnered with ICE.

As the movement was focused on U.S.-based companies, Mijente was at first “amazed” students in England and Scotland also wanted to join the campaign, said senior organizer Jacinta Gonzalez. 

This is likely because at the time, here in Britain, Palantir had yet to imprint on the public imagination to the extent it had in the United States. Palantir’s push for international expansion is perhaps due to an Amazon and Uber-inspired model that has become deeply ingrained in many tech companies—the idea being that global dominance will eventually lead to a market monopoly, which would make up for the fact that the company, as of 2020, has not turned a profit since 2003. (They did, however, remove artisanal bacon from the company breakfast menu in order to cut costs, according to the Wall Street Journal.)

But Palantir is quickly becoming (in)famous in the U.K. as well. The company has recently made headlines after winning a multi-million-pound deal for the “unprecedented” transfer of citizens’ private health data in the midst of the pandemic. (The U.K. government has also enlisted Microsoft, Amazon, and Google to help with the COVID data store). Palantir has also been awarded oversight of Britain’s post-Brexit border despite its role in assisting Donald Trump’s drive to deport migrants from the U.S. 

Not everyone in the U.K. is pleased with the newfound presence of American tech companies. In fact, as of February 2021, the U.K. government is facing a lawsuit for its NHS data deal after questions were raised about the role of personal relationships in awarding the lucrative contract. (Emails uncovered by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism showed the head of Palantir U.K. and the chair of NHS England drank watermelon cocktails at a dinner party to discuss the deal.)

What is less scrutinized, however, is the nature of partnerships between big tech firms and “elite” British universities—a type of alliance that originated in the for-profit American education system. People don’t always know their schools have contracts with dozens of corporations that “pay tens of thousands of dollars, euros, or pounds to get special recruitment access to the university’s biggest resource: its students,” said Gonzalez. When considering the normalization of violent technology and hostile immigration environments, the “tech-talent pipeline” is often overlooked. The pipeline—which in everyday parlance denotes the process of corporate technology recruitment from top universities—is used as a disparaging term by activists. For the companies themselves, though, the pipeline is indispensable. 

Palantir’s operations, for example, depend on the talent it recruits directly from U.K. universities. With its largest office situated not in Silicon Valley but in London, most of Palantir’s student-facing engagements are explicitly recruitment-driven. (Although their partnerships with elite institutions may also function as a tool for “reputation-laundering” to improve the company’s tarnished public image.) Palantir bills this as a win-win for everyone involved. Through the sponsoring of dissertation prizes, research initiatives, computer science department hackathons, and job fair exhibitions, big tech operations in turn offer students a stable income and a chance to problem solve. 

In 2019, for example, the Computer Lab at the University of Cambridge added Palantir to their list of sponsors, which allowed the company to take part in the annual job fair and present talks. That same year, the University of St. Andrews accepted payment from Palantir to exhibit at the Science and Technology Careers Fair. A 2015 seminar at the University of Oxford said that, “Adventure is calling!” at Palantir Technologies. Engineering students who “[wanted] to work on the global problems you read about on the front page of the newspaper” were encouraged to attend. More recently, the Oxford Computer Science Department has also accepted prize funding from Palantir.

The level at which higher education institutions are financially entangled with technology companies is not easy to determine—the University of St. Andrews and University of Cambridge have so far not responded to multiple requests for comment and have not fulfilled any freedom of information requests. Oxford belatedly replied to a similar request by claiming that in the last five years it has directly received around £160,000 from Amazon and Palantir for student recruitment-related purposes, which may or may not include more “creative” contributions by those companies. In any case, when concerned students have communicated with administrations, they “tend not to get a huge amount of response,” according to Quito Tsui, a human rights researcher. “There is probably a lot more money that we don’t know about.”  The lack of transparency has, predictably, drawn the ire of activists. In Gonzalez’s view, students everywhere have “the right to choose whether their school associates with companies that aid in deportations or engage in mass surveillance.”

Activists’ concerns stem from the falsely ”neutral” nature of the pipeline, as universities dismiss any consequences of partnerships with corporations that “profit off the back of vulnerable populations,” said Matt Mahmoudi, a tech rights researcher at Amnesty International who recently received a Ph.D. from Cambridge. And while some students in Britain are already mindful or willing to engage with the implications of the pipeline, it can be difficult to get through to the recruits at large. As Tsui pointed out, it is difficult to say to people, “maybe they should take a stance, step away from their very well-paid job, at a very high-profile company after they’ve worked really, really hard for a long time to get [there].” 

A quick look at the numbers indicates what organizers are up against. For example, the average salary at Palantir U.K. for a software engineer is more than £100,000 a year, according to Glassdoor. By comparison, the U.K.’s Institute of Student Employers estimates the median graduate starting salary in the U.K. is, if you’re estimating generously, about £29,000. Beyond that, a 2017 report showed only 52 percent of university graduates in the U.K. secure a graduate level job six months after finishing their education. Of course, the job market is only looking worse for those graduating into a pandemic with unimaginably high unemployment levels. 

Further, many students may not know there are alternative sustainable career options beyond working for the dominant big tech employers, Balakrishnan added, touching on the rigid infrastructure of tech internships. “There’s the pipeline again. Recruitment is a big business, so it takes an active effort to step outside of that circle.”

Working to help students “step outside the circle,” Mahmoudi, Tsui, and Balakrishnan are all part of Britain’s smaller partner group of Mijente, called No Tech for Tyrants. Among many other things, the group runs ethics workshops to draw attention to the dark underside of the pipeline. But as positions at top-tier tech companies are highly competitive and prestigious, attracting similar attendance to their seminars is a challenge without the promise of free swag and perhaps a high-paying job. 

Luckily this does not deter the “very non-hierarchical” collective, whose mission is to sever links between higher education, violent tech, and hostile immigration environments. (This is particularly relevant in the U.K., as the widely criticized Home Office Hostile Environment policy has recently established a set of measures created to make staying in Britain as difficult as possible for migrants. Migrant rights campaigners are concerned, therefore, that the integration of surveillance technology business and higher education reproduces a “hostile environment” in the university context.) To battle this, the group has held teach-ins, a digital summit, launched petitions, and large-scale research projects illuminating what Balakrishnan referred to as “the veneer of tech-ness.” 

Many of those in No Tech for Tyrants did not initially have an academic background in technology but were drawn to it from a philosophical perspective. Niyousha Bastani, a member of the collective and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cambridge, suspects this is because “tech is something concrete,” and so it’s a tangible way to see how human rights issues manifest, she said. 

Balakrishnan, whose background is in human rights, asylum, and immigration detention, explained that one major obstacle activists face is that ordinary people, like a software programmer who writes code at a desk all day, may find it difficult to comprehend the technological connection to migration issues. “I used to be like that,” she said. But without “being immersed in the political consequences of tech work and its tools,” there is a large gap in the conversation. And so the nascent group, whose membership is small but growing, works to close that gap in Britain. They are dedicated to the difficult task of examining and dismantling the sources of power for secretive companies like Palantir: a large interconnected swirl which includes public apathy toward privacy concerns, a lack of government transparency, and recruitment of student workers—all wrapped up in “neutral” forms of technology.

In August of last year, the collective began the #SendPalantirPacking online campaign in order to show “Peter Thiel that [Britons] don’t want immigrant deaths on our hands.” They later collaborated with Privacy International on the in-depth “All roads lead to Palantir” report—a review of the manifold ways the U.S. company is working to covertly embed itself in the U.K. Their most recent campaign #RecruitMeNot, prompting students and researchers worldwide to refuse to be recruited by Google following the silencing and firing of the co-leads of their Ethical AI team, has gained international attention

They’re also making a case for universities to implement “ethical guidelines” when it comes to corporate partnerships within an industry that “prides itself on being at the cutting edge, and breaking and smashing things, before it prides itself on thinking about the consequences of that,” said Tsui. Many students who are being recruited “aren’t very concerned with it,” she guessed, “but I also don’t think that that’s necessarily their fault.” Here lies the crux of the pipeline dilemma. It becomes difficult to know which entity holds the most responsibility: should students be held accountable for where they decide to work? Likely, yes—despite the miserable state of the job market. But the onus should not fall entirely on students. While the tech companies only stand to benefit from the pipeline, as Tsui pointed out, it is the supposedly progressive universities that should take action. 

However, administrators usually say limiting corporate partnerships may be “too political,” and could “threaten institutional neutrality.” Zionts, for his part, doesn’t buy that institutional neutrality is under threat: “If the status quo is producing any kind of harm, it’s very difficult, to my mind, to say that doing nothing is neutral,” he said. Zionts added that one tactic, although so far unsuccessful, is to talk to administrators directly. He laid out his experience at St. Andrews:

First they assure us they are personally against the “bad” things corporations do, but they have different obligations as representatives of the campus. Then they usually mention that other students disagree, and that the university would be doing a “disservice” to those students by banning certain corporations from campus.

“Once they’ve laid out that dynamic, they’re able to put themselves in the middle of two pools of student reasoning,” said Zionts. Calling this a “false neutrality,” he noted that violent tech companies either are or are not invited to a job fair with a limited number of spaces. So with little promise thus far of an institutional breakthrough, the activists appeal directly to students.

In order to achieve this, solidarity across a variety of activist groups is crucial to the operation, according to many members of the collective. This allows them to share and combine their respective areas of knowledge. They consistently work with migrant rights student groups, for example, that may not have the specific expertise on how technology surveillance affects immigration. It is also helpful to plug in to existing student-spaces working on divestment and demilitarization campaigns.

“Obviously, we need to reach beyond the people who are already focusing on these issues,” Mahmoudi explained. “But there’s also something to be said for building the power across people who are working across similar things, but in different spaces, right?”

In a large digital panel discussion and workshop held this month on “The University and the Surveillance State,” academics and postgraduate researchers discussed how grants from “dubious sources,” for example, may affect their research. The moderator asked Balakrishnan if there was anything undergrad students—who may think they do not have a lot of power within the academic structure—could do. Students hold more leverage than they think, she told the audience, especially within marketized education. Even asking what seem like small questions is important, because ultimately universities want happy “customers.” 

Along with the continued push for university commitment to greater transparency, No Tech for Tyrants simultaneously tries to raise uncomfortable questions with their peers about the way that higher education is marketized through running workshops on “ethics theater.” Ethics theater in this case is the process of a company fabricating or overstating its interest in equitable technology use, while simultaneously selling harmful products to governments and other corporations.

Illuminating how many companies may practice a performative ethics, the workshops aim to teach students to question the underlying model of the pipeline. This often includes discussions about whether or not one person, as a “developer in the back,” is really implicated in the larger project of a company. Or: if you are aware of a company’s questionable practices, can the system be changed from the inside?

The question of how much responsibility an individual student holds when taking a job mirrors how we as a society perceive technological advances. There is a subconscious collective understanding that tech is revolutionizing our world and impossible to live without—but difficult to fully understand, which in turn deviously helps us ignore personal accountability for using certain forms of it. “This is not a structural problem,” Mahmoudi said. “This is by structural design, and people are conditioned into that ignorance.” 

The “design” comes in the guise that tech companies will also bring greater efficiencies to social, political, and economic phenomena. As Mahmoudi put it, “It’s what [influential technology writer Evgeny] Morozov refers to as ‘technical solutionism’—the idea that these very complex problems don’t actually need political solutions. They need technical solutions.” 

In other words, Big Tech ultimately depends on students, and the rest of the world for that matter, to believe they’re working in the name of productivity without having to grapple with sinister consequences. And top tier universities casually condone this by partnering with companies that don’t allow workers in poor conditions to unionize, for example. This should be difficult to reconcile for institutions that not only purport to produce employable graduates, but present themselves as creating socially responsible community members. 

So what is the best way to dismantle the pipeline? Activists say you can start by reaching out to one person.

“If I can help one person think about their power, and their implications in larger systems of the political economy, then maybe they’ll bring that up in a class or mention it offhand when they’re having a beer with their friend,” Balakrishnan said. “Those moments are the ones that have the potential to build collective movement.” Tsui jokingly called this type of consciousness-raising, “interpersonal intervention,” and found it was one of the best ways to gain momentum with those “siloed and ensconced in tech spaces.”

“To me, the biggest challenge is for people who have found ways to explain it to themselves,” Tsui said, acknowledging, however, that it is important to consider “that kind of dissonance is something that exists in all of us” in other situations. 

While bringing individual awareness to institutional harms is laudable, it is difficult to imagine vast change without some kind of legislation or a huge internal shift on the part of universities themselves. This is coupled with the fact that it is hard to picture enough people shunning the pay and the prestige of a place like Palantir to make a big dent in their workforce. This of course doesn’t mean the work is not worth doing, even if the process moves slowly and workshop attendance is a bit low. In fact, No Tech for Tyrants has lately had increased membership interest and plans to expand across the country and Europe, centering students in places beyond the so-called “elite” universities.

But going forward, those working against the airtight pipeline—bookended by established educational institutions and influential high-paying workplaces—still have a tough hill to climb as technology companies only become more embedded into our everyday lives. And while that paints a grim picture, as the pipeline spreads from the U.S. around the world, so do those working in opposition. We can only hope to avoid “death of political imagination” as they continue to organize, which Mahmoudi argued is caused by the “neoliberalization of everything.” He hopes 2021 will include campaigning for something—like imagining alternative tech spaces—instead of always being in the reactive state that is often required by activists. 

But the question remains, he said: “How do you bridge the need to react to things that are so grotesque, whilst also building out the new future?”

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