The Consequences for Tech Whistleblowers: ‘People Come After You’

Two women who publicly spoke out against their employers reflect on what happened after.

| Updated on: Jul 28 2023, 07:31 IST
Safiya Noble, Ifeoma Ozoma and Timnit Gebru
Safiya Noble, Ifeoma Ozoma and Timnit Gebru (Bloomberg)
Safiya Noble, Ifeoma Ozoma and Timnit Gebru
Safiya Noble, Ifeoma Ozoma and Timnit Gebru (Bloomberg)

Ifeoma Ozoma was ousted from her role at Pinterest Inc. due to what she said was retaliation for speaking out about pay equity disparities. The experience didn't just cost her a job. She ended up leaving Silicon Valley entirely.

For the latest episode of The Circuit With Emily Chang, I interviewed Ozoma on her farm in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Joining us there was Timnit Gebru, a former Google employee who left in 2020 after co-authoring a paper about the dangers of generative artificial intelligence, and Safiya Noble, author of Algorithms of Oppression.

The loss of employment wasn't the end for Gebru and Ozoma, they said. “You have stalkers,” Gebru said. “People come after you.”

For Ozoma, the abuse started before she even left Pinterest. Ozoma, who is Black, said she advocated against White supremacy content on the site, which led to her being doxxed by a White male colleague who published her contact information online. She said she was then subjected to a barrage of online harassment. Pinterest said it's taken steps to improve its culture.

Some have referred to tech critics like Ozoma, Gebru and Noble as Luddites, but Ozoma said that couldn't be farther from the truth. “We're not anti-technology. My entire career was at Google, Facebook, Pinterest,” Ozoma said. “We are pro-human dignity.”

Ozoma went on to write the Tech Workers Handbook, a resource that offers counsel and tips for tech workers who are considering blowing the whistle on their employers. She also helped pass the Silenced No More Act in California and Washington state, which helps protect workers who speak out about harassment and discrimination.

All three women said their biggest concern now is AI. Not the sort of apocalyptic scenario popular among some in the Valley. This narrative, they said, distracts from problems that already exist today in areas like health care, lending and surveillance. “Surveillance in ways that people can't opt out of and people can't defend themselves from,” Ozoma said.

Gebru added: “We're talking about people not getting a mortgage, people not getting care, people being sentenced.”

“One of the things that people feel about what's happening with tech is that it's totalizing: These are the technologies that we have, they're here now, there's nothing we can do,” said Noble. “People who lived in the Americas during the time of the period of enslavement also got up every day and got their kids ready for school.”

This episode of The Circuit With Emily Chang premieres Thursday, July 27, at 8 p.m. in New York on the Bloomberg app and and on Bloomberg Television at 10 p.m. Check out The Circuit podcast for extended conversations.

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First Published Date: 28 Jul, 07:31 IST