In June, as 15 million people nationwide marched in Black Lives Matter protests and employees at tech companies called on their bosses to cancel company contracts with law enforcement, Microsoft announced that it would temporarily restrict sales of its facial recognition software to police departments.
In July, as temperatures in the far north climbed to record highs and wildfires raged on the frozen shores of the Arctic ocean, Microsoft said in a statement that it would expand its in-house carbon tax, and unveiled a new “Transform to Net Zero” coalition to help the business world accelerate toward a carbon-free future.
These announcements may seem like unrelated moves made in response to equally unrelated crises. But each represents Microsoft’s ongoing efforts to promote itself as a moral leader in tech that’s sincerely grappling with the potential for its products and services to have a negative impact on the world, whether the issue at hand is mass surveillance or climate change.
However, over the past several years Microsoft has also aggressively expanded into the multi-billion-dollar digital services market for the fossil fuel industry.
Microsoft is partnering with fossil fuel corporations and services providers to develop tools and apps that monitor workers in order to carve money-saving efficiencies out of oil and gas production. Firms like ExxonMobil, BP, and Chevron are also using the huge data processing capabilities of Microsoft’s Azure cloud hosting service to power machine learning and artificial intelligence tools that help them identify lucrative new drilling opportunities, monitor wells remotely, and predict when a pipeline requires maintenance before it breaks down.
According to a recent report by oil industry analysts at Barclays, these services stand to shave the industry’s collective expenses by up to $150 billion annually, enough to potentially “delay the global transition to renewable energy.”
These engagements undercut Microsoft’s claims to be leading the tech sector in corporate climate action, says Lindsay Baker, the former head of sustainability at WeWork. “This is an aspect of the fight against climate change that they could and should take responsibility for.”
Microsoft has repeatedly touted one particular oil industry big data tool in its customer stories and press releases:“Connected Construction,” an Internet of Things, or IoT, application developed for Petrofac, a major global oilfield services provider by Accenture, a Microsoft partner and one of the world’s largest consulting firms.
Connected Construction combines worker surveillance with productivity analysis. The platform “tracks people, equipment and materials on site, enabling real-time insights and decision-making which, in turn, improves performance,” according to Petrofac’s website. In practice, workers carry individual, internet-equipped identifier tags that transmit location data to a cloud-based server, in this case, located in Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing service.
Based on screenshots in a Microsoft video of Connected Construction’s digital dashboard, the system produces heat maps that reveal patterns in how workers move around a site, as well as the amount of time each worker spends in “productive” and “non-productive” zones.
“The intelligence generated enables supervisors to detect and predict any schedule deviations and make decisions that support both productivity and safety,” says Daniel Atbir, Petrofac’s former vice president of construction, in the video. “Time is saved by tracking and correcting unproductive trends.”