Google cuts corporate access of AI researcher following Timnit Gebru dustup

The search giant says it's investigating how Margaret Mitchell, who leads Google's Ethical AI group, handled sensitive data.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
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Google has locked the corporate account of artificial intelligence researcher Margaret Mitchell, the leader of its Ethical AI unit. Mitchell had criticized the search giant after the controversial departure of another prominent AI researcher at the company, Timnit Gebru.

Mitchell had been using automated software to go through her old messages to find examples of discriminatory treatment toward Gebru, according to Axios, which first reported the news. 

Google said it's investigating the situation.

"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," a spokesman said in a statement. "In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts."

Mitchell didn't respond to a request for comment.

Last month, Gebru, who co-led Google's Ethical AI group and is one of the only Black women in the field, said she was fired over a research paper that calls out risks for bias in AI -- including in systems used by Google's search engine. Gebru also emailed a group of Google employees, criticizing the company's diversity and equity programs. 

Gebru's exit has caused widespread outrage among Google's rank-and-file workforce and around the broader tech industry . Nearly 2,700 Googlers have signed an open letter in support of Gebru. Members of Gebru's former team at Google also sent a letter to CEO Sundar Pichai demanding she be reinstated.

"I have not seen a company that has this little shame in a while," Gebru wrote on Twitter after Mitchell's corporate account was locked.

The Alphabet Workers Union, which launched earlier this month, on Wednesday condemned Google's actions. "Regardless of the outcome of the company's investigation, the ongoing targeting of leaders in this organization calls into question Google's commitment to ethics -- in AI and in their business practices," the union said in a blog post. Unlike a conventional union, it doesn't have collective bargaining rights, and one of its main goals is to push Alphabet to act ethically, its founders say. 

Google has dealt with other labor issues in the last few weeks. In December, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Google for allegedly retaliating against activists workers. The complaint claims Google broke US labor laws by surveilling, interrogating and firing activist employees. 

The filing stemmed from terminations Google had made a year before, when the company dismissed employees who worked on responses to its hiring of a consultancy with a history of anti-union efforts. Google said the employees were fired because of violations to Google's data policies. The NLRB alleges some of those policies are unlawful.