Technology

Google investigates ethical AI team member over handling of sensitive data

Google's diversity efforts have been questioned by employees and adds to years of angst, including several resignations and firings in the AI department

An illuminated Google logo is seen inside an office building in Zurich, Switzerland December 5, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann
  • Margaret Mitchell had been using automated scripts to look through her messages to find examples showing discriminatory treatment, of Timnit Gebru, a former employee in the AI team who was fired;
  • While Gebru claimed she was sacked for criticizing the diversity efforts within Google’s AI unit, the company has disputed it.

Google is investigating a member of its ethical AI team and has locked the corporate account linked to that person after finding that thousands of files were retrieved from its server and shared with external accounts, the company said on Wednesday.

Axios, which first reported the latest investigation around a member of Google’s AI team, said the artificial intelligence researcher Margaret Mitchell had been using automated scripts to look through her messages to find examples showing discriminatory treatment of Timnit Gebru, a former employee in the AI team who was fired.

Gebru, who is Black, was a top AI ethics researcher at Google and was fired in December. While Gebru claimed she was sacked for criticizing the diversity efforts within Google’s AI unit, the company has disputed it.

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In a statement, Google confirmed that Mitchell‘s email account has been locked for investigation:

“Our security systems automatically lock an employee’s corporate account when they detect that the account is at risk of compromise due to credential problems or when an automated rule involving the handling of sensitive data has been triggered. We are actively investigating this matter as part of standard procedures to gather additional details.”

Since Gebru’s forced exit, Google have beem criticized for its actions and the AI ethics team has been under presure. Following the repercussions of Gebru’s forced exit, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said, in last December, that the company was looking further into its treatment of Gebru, but not detailed it.

Google’s diversity efforts have been questioned by employees and adds to years of angst, including several resignations and firings in the AI department, raising doubts whether the company’s efforts to minimize the potential harms of its services are sufficient.

As a response, employees founded the Alphabet Workers Union to pressure the company on issues like compensation and ethical concerns such as the kinds of work Google engages in.