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Microsoft engineer: Big Oil trying to use tech to spy on oil workers

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  • An anonymous Microsoft engineer has claimed managers working on a major oil extraction project called Tengizchevroil (TCO) proposed using tech to spy on staff working in their oil fields.
  • Writing in Logic Magazine, the engineer recounted how TCO managers wanted to use artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data from GPS trackers to analyze CCTV video footage to track workers’ behaviour.
  • TCO is a joint venture between Chevron and ExxonMobil, as well as the Kazakh state-owned oil firm KazMunayGas and LukArko, a subsidiary of Russian oil firm Lukoil. The anonymous engineer was sent to Kazakhstan due to a preexisting arrangement between Microsoft and Chevron.
  • Microsoft did not immediately respond to Business Insider’s request for comment.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

An anonymous Microsoft engineer has written what appears to be an explosive account of their experiences with a major multinational oil project called Tengizchevroil (TCO).

In an essay published in Logic Magazine, the engineer – writing under the pseudonym “Zero Cool” – described how managers overseeing the project wanted Microsoft’s help to spy on workers in its oil fields.

The anonymous account doesn’t give a timeline for the events described. The writer is described by Logic Magazine as “a software engineer working at Microsoft.”

Microsoft, ExxonMobil, and Chevron have not yet responded to the account. The report comes as Silicon Valley workers step up action against their employers for working with major oil firms and other companies that impact climate change.

TCO is a joint venture between oil giants Chevron and ExxonMobil, as well as the Kazakh state-owned oil firm KazMunayGas, and LukArko (a subsidiary of the Russian oil firm Lukoil). As such, many of the venture’s oil fields are in Kazakhstan, and many of its oil field workers are local Kazakhs.

The anonymous engineer recounted going to Kazakhstan due to a pre-existing arrangement between Microsoft and Chevron to help TCO oil fields adopt Microsoft technology.

The engineer alleged that TCO managers proposed using artificial intelligence and machine learning to track staff.

The engineer wrote: “This is what our Chevron partners were most keen to discuss: how to better surveil their workers. 

CCTV IP camera.

TCO managers allegedly proposed using AI to analyze CCTV footage of oil field workers.
GettyImages/ Thanit Weerawan


“They proposed using [artificial intelligence] to analyze the video streams from existing CCTV cameras to monitor workers throughout the oil field. In particular, they wanted to implement computer vision algorithms that could detect suspicious activity and then identify the worker engaging in that activity.”

TCO managers said they didn’t trust workers

This reportedly wasn’t the only surveillance method managers proposed, either.

“The TCO managers also talked about using the data from the GPS trackers that were installed on all of the trucks used to transport equipment to the oil sites,” the engineer continued. “They told us that the workers were not trustworthy. Drivers would purportedly steal equipment to sell in the black market.”

The idea was to build a machine-learning model that could identify any abnormal driving activity. But such a model would also let managers track workers’ productivity and let them monitor bathroom breaks and what routes they took.

One unnamed manager reportedly said it “would be nice” to “know where they are and what they are doing, if they are doing anything at all.”

Microsoft signed a seven-year deal with Chevron in 2017, which was billed as an effort to “digitize” oil fields.

The engineer’s allegations compound what is already a widely criticized relationship between Microsoft and the oil industry.

In September, Microsoft employees signed an open letter critical of the tech giant’s work with oil firms, and Gizmodo reporter Brian Merchant accused Microsoft and other tech giants of “automating the climate crisis” in a stinging op-ed.

Business Insider has contacted Chevron, ExxonMobil, and Microsoft for comment.

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