Microsoft sued by staff traumatized by child sex abuse vids stashed on OneDrive accounts
Document police with 'god-like' access denied therapy – claim
Two former Microsoft employees have sued the Windows giant seeking compensation for the mental trauma of screening child sex abuse photos, murder videos, and other extreme content flowing through the company's online services.
Henry Soto and Greg Blauert were assigned to Microsoft's Online Safety Team, formed in 2008 following a federal requirement that unlawful material like child pornography must be reported to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Soto, according to the complaint, was transferred to the Online Safety Team involuntarily in 2008 and in the years that followed "was required to view many thousands of photographs and videos of the most horrible, inhumane, and disgusting content one can imagine."
The lawsuit's paperwork – filed at King County Superior Court in the US state of Washington last month and obtained by The Register today – can be found here [PDF].
Microsoft in an emailed statement said that it disagreed with the allegations and insisted that it takes seriously both its responsibility to remove and report imagery of child sexual abuse and the health and welfare of its employees.
"Microsoft applies industry-leading technology to help detect and classify illegal imagery of child abuse and exploitation that are shared by users on Microsoft Services," a company spokesperson said. "Once verified by a specially trained employee, the company removes the imagery, reports it to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, and bans the users who shared the imagery from our services."
Ben W Wells, the attorney representing Soto, in a phone interview with The Register explained that Microsoft reviews content listed in Bing and stored in OneDrive.
"That's where people store things and sometimes they store very inappropriate things," said Wells. "There are laws that require Microsoft, if they see something, to report it."
Soto and Blauert were among those responsible for flagging objectionable material. According to Wells, the Online Safety Team reviewed content forwarded by two contractors who handled initial content screening for Microsoft.
Microsoft declined to comment on its contracting arrangements, but pointed to its PhotoDNA service as a means by which content gets flagged for review.
Blauert began working for Microsoft contractor Society Consulting in 2011 doing content screening, the complaint says, and was hired by Microsoft in 2012 as a full-time employee doing the same work. He claimed disability in 2013.
Soto went on medical leave in 2015.
The Online Safety Team appears to have broad latitude to screen material and access to match. "In 2008, Mr Soto and others had 'God-like' status and could literally view any customer's communications at any time," the complaint states.
Microsoft declined to address this beyond reiterating that it disputes the claims.
Redmond staffers and software tools sniff out banned material
In 2009, the same year it introduced its PhotoDNA project to help automatically detect child exploitation, Microsoft began providing counseling for members of the Online Safety Team, to address a condition the company allegedly referred to as "compassion fatigue." But the complaint claims the services were inadequate.
Microsoft, according to the complaint, maintains a separate "Digital Crimes Unit" that reports child sexual abuse to law enforcement and includes employee safety protections. Such resources are not extended to the Online Safety Team because the two groups are not under the same budget, the complaint says.
Wells said Soto and Blauert have suffered serious mental anguish as a result of their exposure to graphic imagery, which their doctors have diagnosed as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome.
"They're horrific videos of little children being sexually mutilated and killed," said Wells. "...Henry can't look at knives, if that gives you some idea of the stuff he saw."
Trauma arising from exposure to graphic imagery has been documented in academic research. A 2009 study, "Work Exposure to Child Pornography in ICAC Task Forces and Affiliates" [PDF], found that among 511 participants in the Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force, 35 per cent had experienced problems arising from their exposure to child sex abuse.
Microsoft acknowledges the difficulty of the work and says that the health and safety of its employees is a top priority. "Microsoft works with the input of our employees, mental health professionals, and the latest research on robust wellness and resilience programs to ensure those who handle this material have the resources and support they need, including an individual wellness plan," the company spokesperson said. "We view it as a process, always learning and applying the newest research about what we can do to help support our employees even more."
Microsoft said it provides mandatory one-on-one and group meetings with a psychologist, quarterly psychological education training for employees and managers on recognizing trauma symptoms, and referrals to mental health professionals.
The Redmond goliath also said it provides tools to mitigate the impact of extreme imagery, such as blurring, resolution degradation and size reduction, separating audio from video tracks, and conversion to black and white. It also claims that it imposes limits on how long and where the work can be done, to blunt the psychological impact, and that it offers breaks or reassignment at employee discretion.
At the moment, Wells said, his client is not employable and has been unable to get disability coverage. The complaint states that worker compensation claims based on mental disabilities caused by stress are excluded from coverage under the law.
Blauert is in the process of settling a damage claim over disability benefits with insurance company Prudential. That settlement has been delayed while the litigation with Microsoft remains unresolved.
The case against Microsoft seeks not only damages for psychological trauma, but changes to Microsoft's work environment that would make it more safe for employees.
"The evidence shows that they went through a lot of managers, some of whom refused to review content," said Wells. "And other employees had problems."
The complaint says that Microsoft's upper management refused to watch a presentation about Online Safety because "they asserted it could affect their 'business judgement'." ®