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Despite risk, 1,000 in tech pledge not to help Trump's data efforts

Patrick Thibodeau | Dec. 16, 2016
Action could put some employees in jeopardy of losing their jobs, particularly those with a security clearance

We hope that we inspire other tech workers to think about what they are and aren't willing to do, whether or not they can sign the pledge themselves. Valerie Aurora, a Neveragain organizer

"For many of us, the risk of aiding and abetting large-scale human rights abuses is so much more concerning that we wanted to commit ourselves publicly as a way to hold ourselves accountable," said Aurora.

Many tech workers "lead lives of comparative ease and advantage and are willing to risk losing -- or quitting -- jobs in order to take this stand, she said. "We hope that we inspire other tech workers to think about what they are and aren't willing to do, whether or not they can sign the pledge themselves."

Indeed, the pledge preamble makes clear the stakes. It cites a range of atrocities and human rights abuses, from the Holocaust, internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to more recent genocides. Signers pledge not to participate in anything involved in data collection for purposes of mass deportation or registration based on religion or national origin.

"The security clearance process is not supposed to infringe on fundamental First Amendment rights," said Sean Bigley, a partner at Bigley Ranish in Los Angeles, a law firm that specializes in security clearance issues. But because the president, as commander-in-chief, has control over who gets a security clearance, it makes it possible for someone to use their signature on the pledge against them, he said.

Nonetheless, Bigley said there are "enough procedural protections in place that political retaliation in the form of a denied or revoked security clearance would be highly unlikely." The clearance decisions are made by career security officials "who carefully guard their prerogatives against outside influence," he said.

The bigger problem is if the employee's action goes beyond a speech issue to refusing to work on a particular project because of the pledge, which could form the basis of security or loyalty concerns, said Bigley.

For tech firms, the problems could be broad, particularly if the government begins seeking information from social media providers and other tech firms to help build out databases to use in mass deportations or registrations. The tech industry has already been at odds with President Barack Obama's administration over encryption of data.

David Lewis, president and CEO of OperationsInc, a Norwalk, Conn.-based human resources consulting firm, said any kind of action, covert or otherwise, "that would force employees to write such code or work on such a project would likely get publicized, putting the court of public opinion in the resistor's favor.

"The impact of taking on such work only to have it dissolve into a public fiasco would have far-reaching impact on most firms, both for their sales and their ability to attract and retain" employees, Lewis said.


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