Google artificial intelligence (AI) researcher Margaret Mitchell has been locked out of corporate systems, making her the second outspoken critic at the company to be sidelined after colleague Timnit Gebru departed in acrimonious circumstances in December.

The Alphabet unit has an Ethical AI team, led by Mitchell, and a set of principles for developing the technology in a socially responsible manner. Gebru tweeted on Tuesday that Mitchell’s “corp access is now locked” and that the researcher had been told she would remain locked out “for at least a few days”.

Mitchell did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A Google spokesperson said the company is investigating the matter and provided the following statement: “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. In this instance, yesterday our systems detected that an account had exfiltrated thousands of files and shared them with multiple external accounts. We explained this to the employee earlier today.”

Gebru, best known for showing how facial recognition algorithms are better at identifying White people than Black people, left Google in a storm of controversy in December. She has said she was fired after the company demanded she retract a research paper she co-authored that questioned an AI technology at the heart of Google’s search engine. The company has said she resigned.

Close to 2,700 Googlers and more than 4,300 academics and civil society supporters signed a petition in favour of Gebru. Google CEO Sundar Pichai e-mailed an apology to employees and said he is investigating the incident.

 Mitchell has been a vocal supporter of Gebru on social media and a critic of the shortcomings of Google and other tech companies in how they address issues of race, gender and systemic bias.

The company has increasingly clashed with employees in recent years over AI projects, especially with the military, and workplace diversity.

Earlier in January, several employees unveiled the Alphabet Workers Union to pressure the company on issues including compensation and ethical concerns such as the kinds of work Google engages in.

On December 21, April Curley, who spent six years as a Google diversity recruiter, said she was fired for speaking out internally about her concerns that the company wasn’t sufficiently interested in diversifying its workforce. In a Twitter thread, she said Google does not “want black talent”.

Subsequently, HBCU20x20, an organisation that pairs students from historically black colleges and universities with companies, cancelled an agreement to work with Google, which was signed  in 2020.

Pichai will meet several of these colleges on January 29 to discuss representation in the technology industry, according to an official from Florida A&M University.

In addition to the president of Florida A&M, representatives from Howard University, Morgan State University, Prairie View A&M University, North Carolina A&T University and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund are expected to take part in the virtual meeting, the Florida A&M official said.

“We are dedicated to hiring and retaining black+ and other underrepresented talent at Google, and we’re committed to strengthening our partnerships with HBCUs,” a Google spokesperson wrote in an e-mailed statement. “This work is critical — in 2019 we welcomed graduates from 19 HBCUs and over the past decade, we’ve expanded our recruiting efforts to more than 800 schools.”


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