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Report: Unity staff concerned by lack of transparency over military projects

Report: Unity staff concerned by lack of transparency over military projects

August 23, 2021 | By Chris Kerr

Unity employees are questioning the company's lack of transparency over its military and government work.

According to an extensive report from Waypoint, multiple employees have expressed concern over the engine maker's reluctance to be upfront with staff about the nature of projects that could be viewed as unethical.

Unity hasn't been shy when it comes to promoting its contracts outside of the games industry -- the company actively touts its work in other industries like automation, engineering, transportation, government, military, and aerospace on its website (as pictured below) -- but when it comes to discussing the full extent of those projects internally, the company is seekingly more guarded. 

Three sources that spoke with Waypoint claimed that some Unity employees could end up developing technology for military clients without ever knowing it, largely because Unity often nicknames those government and military contracts as 'GovTech' initiatives.

Waypoint also obtained a draft memo that instructs Unity managers to use terms like 'government' and 'defence' instead of 'military.' Although it's unclear if the memo was ever officially circulated, the language used tallies with employee concerns. 

"We need to be sensitive to the various values & beliefs which people perceive our engagement with the Government, specifically DoD [Department of Defense]," reads the memo, which also contains a list of "do's" and "don'ts," including one telling employees not to "discuss any projects that involves the use of simulated or virtual weapons or training to harm another person."

The through line here seems to be that Unity employees across a variety of disciplines are being left in the dark about how their work could be used. For instance, one source explained how an engineer might be working on an AI tool without ever knowing it could be used for military purposes.

"Most Unity AI work empowers other government projects, so in this way it can be difficult to gauge one's contribution to government projects," said one source. "It should be very clear when people are stepping into the military initiative part of Unity," added another. 

Although Unity employees can sometimes request more information from a manager, the process for doing so appears to be convoluted and in some cases only results in vague responses . 

For instance, one source explained how they'd been tasked with working on what was described as a "a placement randomization scheme for a government simulation project," only to find out the technology would be used to simulate explosion debris on virtual runways.

In a bid to reassure employees after they spoke out against a deal with oil and gas juggernaut, Schlumberger, Unity formed the Sales Ethics Advisory Council (SEAC) to vet projects and ensure the company avoids problematic clients. 

The ethics council, however, has also been accused of being delibteraly obtuse, and reportedly provides limited insights into its broader decision making process. The notion of Unity forming the SEAC to provide ethical oversight without ever properly explaining how the group operates has rubbed some the wrong way, and while some staff managed to press the issue during an internal AMA session earlier this year, the answers they recieved did little to alleviate their concerns.

"It was not quite the disaster that I thought it was going to be, but it was great in that a lot of people had questions and they [Unity] had very few answers," said one source who attended the meeting.

"Whether or not I'm working directly for the government team, I'm empowering the products they're selling," said another source. "Do you want to use your tools to catch bad guys? Maybe we shouldn't be in the business of defining who bad guys are," added another. 

For more insights on the situation at Unity, be sure to read the full story on Waypoint.

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