Google investigating an AI ethicist for sharing sensitive documents

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The action marks the second scandal in recent weeks involving Google’s AI ethics team.

Google has suspended the corporate account of Margaret Mitchell, a lead on its ethical AI team, according to a report in Axios. Google has claimed that the suspension is because she downloaded and shared sensitive documents with external accounts.

Google’s action was first reported in a tweet by Dr. Timnit Gebru, who previously co-led Google’s ethical AI division with Mitchell and left the company in December, claiming that Google had in essence fired her.

At that time, the company said Gebru had given her superiors an ultimatum. She demanded that they publish her paper or she’d resign. Those superiors accepted her resignation. Gebru then went on social media, claiming that as a black woman working for a “white patriarchy,” she had been the victim of discrimination.

Lockout triggered by criticism on social media?

Mitchell had recently tweeted in support of Gebru’s claim of white male patriarchy. She also directly criticised CEO Sundar Pichai’s planned meeting with historically Black college and university leaders.

“Say you have a problem with consistently alienating Black women and have caused serious damage in their lives,” Mitchell wrote. “You could: A) try to undo that damage B) try to find more Black people to like you (the tokenism approach). Good luck…..”

Axios reports that Mitchell had been “using automated scripts to look through her messages to find examples showing discriminatory treatment of Gebru before her account was locked.”

Rumours are now swirling as to whether the actions Google has taken toward Mitchell are in retaliation for her public criticism of Pichai and her overt solidarity with Gebru.

Google: lockout just standard security procedure

A Google spokesperson confirmed that they had suspended Mitchell’s corporate access, including her work email. They were quick to assert, however, that this was all just part of an automatic security protocol.

“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,” Google said in a statement to Axios.

“In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today.”