Google workers protest $1.2 billion contract with Israel

In midtown Manhattan on March 4, Google’s managing director for Israel, Barak Regev, was addressing a conference promoting the Israeli tech industry when a member of the audience stood up in protest. “I am a Google Cloud software engineer, and I refuse to build technology that powers genocide, apartheid, or surveillance,” shouted the protester, wearing an orange t-shirt emblazoned with a white Google logo. “No tech for apartheid!” 

The Google worker, a 23-year-old software engineer named Eddie Hatfield, was booed by the audience and quickly bundled out of the room, a of the event shows. After a pause, Regev addressed the act of protest. “One of the privileges of working in a company which represents democratic values is giving space for different opinions,” he told the crowd.

Three days later, Google fired Hatfield.

Hatfield is part of a growing movement inside Google that is calling on the company to drop Project Nimbus, a $1.2 billion contract with Israel, jointly held with Amazon. The protest group, called No Tech for Apartheid, now has around 40 Google employees closely involved in organizing, according to members, who say there are hundreds more workers sympathetic to their goals. TIME spoke to five current and five former Google workers for this story, many of whom described a growing sense of anger at the possibility of Google aiding Israel in its war in Gaza. Two of the former Google workers said they had resigned from Google in the last month in protest against Project Nimbus. These resignations, and Hatfield’s identity, have not previously been reported.

No Tech for Apartheid’s protest is as much about what the public doesn’t know about Project Nimbus as what it does. The contract is for Google and Amazon to provide AI and cloud computing services to the Israeli government and military, according to the Israeli finance ministry, which the deal in 2021. Nimbus reportedly involves Google a secure instance of Google Cloud on Israeli soil, which would allow the Israeli government to perform large-scale data analysis, AI training, database hosting, and other forms of powerful computing using Google’s technology, with little oversight by the company. Google, first reported by the Intercept in 2022, suggest that the Google services on offer to Israel via its Cloud have capabilities such as AI-enabled facial detection, automated image categorization, and object tracking.

Further details of the contract are scarce or non-existent, and much of the workers’ frustration lies in what they say is Google’s lack of transparency about what else Project Nimbus entails and the full nature of the company’s relationship with Israel. Neither Google, nor Amazon, nor Israel, has described the specific capabilities on offer to Israel under the contract. In a statement, a Google spokesperson said: “We have been very clear that the Nimbus contract is for workloads running on our commercial platform by Israeli government ministries such as finance, healthcare, transportation, and education. Our work is not directed at highly sensitive or classified military workloads relevant to weapons or intelligence services.” All Google Cloud customers, the spokesperson said, must abide by the company’s terms of service and acceptable use policy. That policy forbids the use of Google services to violate the legal rights of others, or engage in “violence that can cause death, serious harm, or injury.” An Amazon spokesperson said the company “is focused on making the benefits of our world-leading cloud technology available to all our customers, wherever they are located,” adding it is supporting employees affected by the war and working with humanitarian agencies. The Israeli government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

There is no evidence Google or Amazon’s technology has been directly used in killings of civilians. The Google workers say they base their protests on three main sources of concern: the Israeli finance ministry’s 2021 explicit statement that Nimbus would be used by the ministry of defense; the nature of the services likely available to the Israeli government within Google’s cloud; and the apparent inability of Google to monitor what Israel might be doing with its technology. Workers worry that Google’s powerful AI and cloud computing tools could be used for surveillance, military targeting, or other forms of weaponization. Under the terms of the contract, Google and Amazon reportedly particular arms of the government, including the Israeli military, from using their services, and cannot cancel the contract due to public pressure.

Recent in the Israeli press indicate that air-strikes are being carried out with the support of an AI targeting system; it is not known which cloud provider, if any, provides the computing infrastructure likely required for such a system to run. Google workers note that for security reasons, tech companies often have very limited insight, if any, into what occurs on the sovereign cloud servers of their government clients. “We don’t have a lot of oversight into what cloud customers are doing, for understandable privacy reasons,” says Jackie Kay, a research engineer at Google’s DeepMind AI lab. “But then what assurance do we have that customers aren’t abusing this technology for military purposes?”

With new revelations continuing to trickle out about AI’s role in Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza; the recent killings of foreign aid workers by the Israeli military; and even President Biden now urging Israel to begin an immediate ceasefire, No Tech for Apartheid’s members say their campaign is growing in strength. A previous bout of worker organizing inside Google successfully pressured the company to drop a separate Pentagon contract in 2018. Now, in a wider climate of growing international indignation at the collateral damage of Israel’s war in Gaza, many workers see Google’s firing of Hatfield as an attempt at silencing a growing threat to its business. “I think Google fired me because they saw how much traction this movement within Google is gaining,” says Hatfield, who agreed to speak on the record for the first time for this article. “I think they wanted to cause a kind of chilling effect by firing me, to make an example out of me.”

Hatfield says that his act of protest was the culmination of an internal effort, during which he questioned Google leaders about Project Nimbus but felt he was getting nowhere. “I was told by my manager that I can’t let these concerns affect my work,” he tells TIME. “Which is kind of ironic, because I see it as part of my work. I’m trying to ensure that the users of my work are safe. How can I work on what I’m being told to do, if I don’t think it’s safe?”

Three days after he disrupted the conference, Hatfield was called into a meeting with his Google manager and an HR representative, he says. He was told he had damaged the company’s public image and would be terminated with immediate effect. “This employee disrupted a coworker who was giving a presentation – interfering with an official company-sponsored event,” the Google spokesperson said in a statement to TIME. “This behavior is not okay, regardless of the issue, and the employee was terminated for violating our policies.”

Seeing Google fire Hatfield only confirmed to Vidana Abdel Khalek that she should resign from the company. On March 25, she pressed send on an email to company leaders, including CEO Sundar Pichai, announcing her decision to quit in protest over Project Nimbus. “No one came to Google to work on offensive military technology,” the former trust and safety policy employee wrote in the email, seen by TIME, which noted that over 13,000 children had been killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza since the beginning of the war; that Israel had fired upon Palestinians attempting to reach humanitarian aid shipments; and had fired upon convoys of evacuating refugees. “Thr