Jack Poulson, a Google researcher, was recently alerted by reports that the company was developing a search engine for China that would censor content on behalf of the government.
While working on search technologies, Poulson had no knowledge of the product, codenamed Dragonfly. Last week Poulson, during a meeting with Jeff Dean, head of the Artificial Intelligence Division, asked if Google planned to continue with the product and if his work would contribute to censorship and surveillance in China.
According to Poulson, Dean said Google met federal government monitoring requests and asked rhetorically if the company wanted to leave the US market in protest. Dean also gave a draft corporate e-mail stating, "We will not and should not provide 1
The next day Poulson stopped. Dean did not respond to a request for comment, and Google declined to comment.
Throughout the technology industry, ordinary people are demanding better insight into the way their companies use the technology they've developed. At Google, Amazon, Microsoft and Salesforce, as well as at startups, engineers and technicians are increasingly asking if the products they use are used in places like China or for military projects in the United States or elsewhere  That's a change As employees of the Silicon Valley typically developed products in which the social costs were hardly questioned. It's also a sign that some tech companies that have grown to serve consumers and businesses are more involved in government work. And the shift coincides with concerns in Silicon Valley about the policies of the Trump administration and the greater role of technology in government.
"You may think you are building technology for a purpose, and then you find out it's really twisted," said Laura Nolan, a senior software engineer, who joined Google in June for the company's involvement Project Maven resigned to build Artificial Intelligence for the Department of Defense, which could be used for drone strikes.
All this has led to growing tensions between tech employees and managers. Google, Microsoft and Amazon employees have signed petitions and protested to executives about how to use some of their co-developed technologies. In smaller companies, engineers have started asking more questions about ethics.
And the change is likely to continue: Some engineering students have said they ask for more answers and ask similar questions even before they enter the workplace  "What people are looking for – not just employees – they are looking for clarity "said Frank Shaw, a Microsoft spokesman. Even if you disagree with the decision made, if you understand the underlying thinking, that helps a lot. "
Amazon did not respond to a request for comment.
Poulson, whose work involved incorporating a variety of languages into Google Search, initially did not say his research could be involved in Dragonfly – until he noticed that Chinese had been added to a list of languages for his project ,
"Most people do not know the holistic thing they build," said Poulson, who spent over two years at Google. "You do not know where to go if you're not older enough."
The difficulty of knowing what companies do with technology is aggravating because engineers in large technology companies often build infrastructure – like algorithms, databases, and even hardware – that's just about every product a company offers. For example, Google uses a storage system called Colossus in Search, Google Maps, and Gmail.
"It would be very difficult for most Google engineers to be sure that their work in some projects does not contribute to these projects," said Nolan, who helped keep Google's systems online.
Nevertheless, executives in technology companies have claimed that complete transparency is not possible.
"As a company, we've always had confidential projects, so I think what happened when the company was smaller gave you a better chance of finding out," said Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a staff meeting in August Transcript of the New York Times. "I think there are many times when people are in exploration stages, discussing teams and doing things, sometimes it can be completely transparent at the time."
This policy has changed beyond tech companies. In June, more than 100 Stanford, MIT, and other top college students signed a pledge that they would reject job interviews with Google if the company did not cancel its Project Maven contract. (Google said this month that it would not renew the contract once it expires.)
Kate Conger and Cade Metz are New York Times writers.