Cybersecurity

Microsoft is asking China-based AI employees to relocate

Most employees that Microsoft extended the offer to work in machine learning and cloud computing, the Wall Street Journal reported.
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Amid US–China tensions, Microsoft is requesting its AI employees in China to “consider transferring outside of the country,” the Wall Street Journal reported May 16.

The tech giant made the offers in mid-May, asking around 700 to 800 employees—mostly comprising “engineers with Chinese nationality”—if they’d like to transfer to countries such as “the US, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand,” the Journal also reported, noting a majority of the employees are working on “machine learning and other cloud computing tasks.”

“The political environment—the reason that you might ask these and invite these people to move abroad is that the actions of the Chinese government frequently put people in a position to decide between their personal safety…or [safety of] their family—and information that they have access to,” Dakota Cary, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub and a China-focused consultant at SentinelOne, told IT Brew.

Risky business. In 2021, the FBI warned the tech sector about the risks involved, including instances of employees “being persuaded, or more typically, coerced by foreign autocracies into stealing information or handing over login credentials,” tech news site Protocol, which has since shut down, reported at the time.

“In one case Shenkin worked on, Chinese government agents threatened to deny an employee’s mother dialysis back in China if he didn’t steal proprietary information from a large hardware/software company,” the outlet also shared.

“I think the base of this request—the most important thing,” Cary said, “is that these people are doing important research that Microsoft finds valuable.”

Given the risks involved, Cary said it makes sense that Microsoft made the offers to the China-based AI employees. “At least from my perspective, there’s a bit of an ethical obligation from Microsoft to give these people the best opportunity to continue to do the work that they do, that is impactful, that is so valuable, and to not be a target of coercion because of that,” he said.

Sidechat. IT Brew previously reported on the great race between China and the US in the rapidly flourishing AI scene, as both countries recently emphasized goals to utilize AI in a way that’s safe and reliable.

IT Brew has reached out to Microsoft for comment.

Top insights for IT pros

From cybersecurity and big data to cloud computing, IT Brew covers the latest trends shaping business tech in our 4x weekly newsletter, virtual events with industry experts, and digital guides.