Palantir is about a 15-minute walk from Stanford University. That stone’s-throw convenience helped one morning in June when a group of Stanford students perched on the third story of a parking garage across the street from the data-analytics company’s entrance and unfurled a banner to greet employees as they walked into work: “OUR SOFTWARE IS SO POWERFUL IT SEPARATES FAMILIES.”
The students were protesting Palantir software that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement uses to log information on asylum-seekers, helping the agency make arrests of undocumented family members who come to pick them up. The activists are members of a campus group called SLAP—Students for the Liberation of All People—that was founded by Stanford freshmen the winter after Donald Trump was elected president. At first, the group focused on concerns shared by leftist activists around the country: On the day of Trump’s inauguration, for example, members blocked the doors of a Wells Fargo near campus to protest the bank’s funding of the Dakota Access Pipeline and its history of racist lending practices. These days, though, SLAP has turned its attention to the industry in its backyard: Big Tech.
When it’s not getting in Palantir’s face, SLAP wants to convince other Stanford students that they shouldn’t go to work at big technology companies that they see as unethical—places that rely on Stanford’s famed computer science program as a recruiting ground. “Working inside these tech companies is not going to build the future we want to see,” two SLAP organizers who are seniors at the university told me. (They asked not to be named because of their involvement in direct actions, like the banner drop, and a decision by the group to only speak to the press as a collective, of which there are about two dozen core members.) To persuade their fellow pupils, they’ve handed out literature and hosted talks. They’ve also disrupted a tech-recruiting job fair and nearly been arrested in the process.
A competing dream appears to be growing in fervor: to use technical skills as an insurance policy against dystopia.
This might all sound like standard campus activism. But many of SLAP’s peers don’t see the group—and another, softer-edged student organization called CS+Social Good—as marginal or a nuisance. Even computer science students whom I interviewed told me they were grateful SLAP is making noise about Silicon Valley, and that their concerns reflect a growing campus skepticism of the technology industry, even among students training to join it.
Stanford’s computer science program, and the university as a whole, may be Silicon Valley’s most important breeding ground of talent. The school’s ranks of famous former students include Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and Palantir founder Peter Thiel as well as current CEO Alex Karp.
The dream of starting a company in your dorm room to solve the world’s problems and make billions in the process is still thriving on campus. But a competing dream, perhaps just as old, appears to be growing in fervor now, too: to use technical skills as an insurance policy against dystopia. Students have not failed to notice the unflattering headlines that have dogged Silicon Valley over the past several years—the seemingly unending scandals in which the biggest technology companies in the world have mishandled user data, facilitated the spread of misinformation, and sold software to the agencies enforcing the Trump administration’s harsh immigration agenda. All of this has sparked new conversations inside and outside the classroom, and there are signs that the once-reliable pipeline between Stanford and Silicon Valley is narrowing—at least a tiny bit.
This can be seen across universities: Recruiters at Facebook have reportedly clocked a dramatic decrease in the acceptance of job offers among top-ranked schools for tech talent. In May, CNBC found that the acceptance rate for full-time positions at Facebook from recent graduates of top-tier schools had fallen between 35 and 55 percent as of last December, down from an 85 percent acceptance rate for the 2017–18 school year. “Students don’t feel that [working at Facebook] has the same cachet,” a San Francisco–based tech recruiter with 15 years of experience (who asked not to be named because Facebook is currently one of his clients) told me in an interview. “It doesn’t seem like the kind of name that students want to have on their résumé for their first go, and because they have optionality, there becomes very few reasons to go to Facebook, especially feeling like that brand is a little tarnished right now.” After all, he added, students are getting very attractive compensation packages elsewhere from other multibillion-dollar tech firms that aren’t courting such negative headlines.
Many of the computer science students at Stanford I talked to oscillated as they described how they feel about companies like Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Google. Some told me they would never work for one of these companies. Others would but hope to push for change from within. Some students don’t care at all, but even the ones who would never think twice about taking a job at Facebook aren’t blind to how the company is perceived. “It probably varies person to person, but I’m at least hopeful that more of the Stanford CS community is thoughtful and critical of the morality of choosing a place to work these days, rather than just chasing prestige,” Neel Rao, a computer science undergrad at Stanford, told me in an online chat. “And that a lot of this is due to increasing coverage of major tech scandals, and its effect on mainstream public sentiment and distrust.”
Other students were quick to point out that students’ feelings about problems fueling distrust of the technology industry vary person to person—that there’s not a clear political or moral line on whether major tech companies are good or bad. “While I am fully skeptical myself, I believe that I would still apply to these jobs,” said Amanda Jacquez, a senior in computer science at Stanford. “But like, I would never work for or apply to Palantir, actually,” Jacquez said, citing its work for federal immigration agencies. “There are some lines, but for me it’s personal because I am Mexican.”
Like SLAP, CS+Social Good is trying to harness these worries. Founded by students in 2014, the group helps find paid internships for computer science students to work at nonprofits in need of tech expertise, promoting the opportunities as alternatives to taking internships at places like Facebook or Google. These groups aren’t the first at Stanford focused on ethics and technology, but in previous decades that impetus primarily took the form of opposition to military funding in tech. It was in a classroom at Stanford in 1983 that the first meeting of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility took place. Members of that group were active in the anti–nuclear weapons movement, and it’s remembered as an important early example of technologists using their talent to resist the status quo. Just as Stanford is a cradle of the modern technology industry, it’s also incubated some of its discontents.
But unlike Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility—and in contrast with the current direct-action approach of SLAP—CS+Social Good is primarily focused on changing computer science higher education from the inside. The organization has worked with the university to create new electives in Stanford’s CS department, like “A.I. for Social Good” and studio classes that allow students to partner with nonprofits on tech projects and get credits. And CS+Social Good has expanded to other campuses too—there are now more than a dozen chapters at campuses across the country. At Stanford, CS+Social Good counts more than 70 core members, though well over 1,000 students have attended its events or are enrolled in the classes it’s helped design.
“When I was a freshman there was more of a culture, like, ‘Oh, so exciting, I’m going to work at Facebook,’ ” Belce Dogru, a co-leader of CS+Social Good, told me, explaining why her group has found a receptive audience, “But now it’s more like, ‘Oh, I’m going to work at Facebook.’ And then another person asks, ‘How do you feel about the data breach?’ And the other person is like, ‘I try not to think about it.’ ” This January, CS+Social Good members invited the two whistleblowers from Theranos, the disgraced blood-testing startup, to give a talk on campus. Hundreds of students packed the auditorium hoping to learn what to do if they find themselves working at an unethical company after college. The talk was titled “Spilling the Blood of a Silicon Valley Unicorn.”
At Stanford, companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon spend upward of $20,000 just for a table at a computer science career fair. Earlier this year at Forum, a major career fair for Stanford CS and engineering students, SLAP members decided to visit the Salesforce table and hand flyers out to any of their interested peers. Salesforce has contracts to provide database services for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. The flyer read, “MAKE A CHOICE,” and detailed how companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Salesforce, and Palantir work directly with U.S. immigration and law enforcement agencies. “If at all possible, work somewhere else,” it read. “Say no to designing the tools to increase deportations, imprisonment, and family separation. Refuse to be a part of the pipeline from Stanford to racist tech companies.” The two members of the group with whom I spoke said that staff at the job fair eventually called the Santa Clara sheriff to escort them out.
SLAP published a zine last month titled “Stop Coding State Violence” that explains why the group is currently focused on calling out tech companies that sell products or services to agencies carrying out federal immigration policies. The booklet spells out, with citations, how decades of racial profiling by police has resulted in datasets that, when fed into predictive policing technologies like those built by Palantir, could further perpetuate racial biases. It names the tech companies that work with ICE and Border Patrol and describes Stanford’s deep history of innovating for the military. The organization plans to hand more out to first-year students in the fall.
Immigration enforcement isn’t SLAP’s only issue with Big Tech at the moment. Last month, the group invited a panel of speakers, including Stephanie Parker, who works at YouTube and is one of the organizers of the Google walkout and a member of the Tech Workers Coalition and also a Stanford alum, to come to campus to talk to students about her experience organizing within Google over the company’s policies for dealing with sexual harassment. More than 100 people attended the panel.
You don’t have to frustrate a Salesforce recruiter or attend a lecture to find yourself tech-skeptical. While the techlash may be visible on Stanford’s campus, it’s yet unclear what it means for students who are concerned about the technology industry’s problems but not exactly outraged.
“It’s early to say if the tide is shifting with Stanford CS students, but I think there’s momentum that’s building,” said Janna Huang, a sociology grad student and teaching assistant. “Back in 2014, people were so excited to enter the tech industry, like they were excited to wear Facebook-issued clothing.” Now, Huang says students are coming to class a bit more skeptical and are more seriously grappling with concepts around privacy and fairness in algorithms. And in some cases, even professors are finding some educational value in students’ concerns.
If you’ve taken a class on computer security, you know Alice and Bob. They’re the fictional characters whom professors like to use to teach students how to hack out of dicey digital scenarios. When Bob gets hacked, Alice comes to the rescue. When Bob needs to send an encrypted email to Alice, she’s got the key to decrypt it. But in the past couple of years, a new nemesis has joined the ranks of Alice and Bob in computer science classrooms: Facebook. “In classes I’ve taken recently about security and networking, you imagine this evil attacker in your security model and now professors and Ph.D. students teaching classes are like, ‘Imagine Facebook is trying to steal your data,’ ” Dogru, of CS+Social Good, said. “The whole class starts laughing and we discuss.”