Two ex-employees of Microsoft are raising a lawsuit against the company for lack of protection – after experiencing psychological problems following exposure to unsettling images. Both of the male employees concerned have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of working with Microsoft – according to allegations.
Their role in the company was to view material with reported illegal content as captured by automated software. Microsoft told the BBC that it offered in-depth and leading support to employees, “Microsoft takes seriously its responsibility to remove and report imagery of child sexual exploitation and abuse being shared on its services, as well as the health and resiliency of the employees who do this important work.”
The company said that it strives to strike a balance between protecting internet users and employees – something that is a constant learning curve.
The two ex-employees Henry Soto and Greg Blauert were employed by Microsoft’s Online Safety Team, a department that ensures the company meets regulations to transfer any illegal imagery/online content to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Although the company said that it rotates staff that are doing this role on a regular basis, the employees stated that there was no real warning given as to the true nature of the unsettling content to be viewed.
The lawsuit argues that the efforts of the men, during employment with Microsoft, were central to protecting children’s lives and bringing about prosecutions, but that they were paying a price in terms of psychological effects.
The work is said to have caused Mr Blauert to suffer a mental breakdown in 2013 – of which a significant contributory factor was the viewing of disturbing material at work.
Mr Soto looked over “many thousands of photographs and videos of the most horrible, inhumane and disgusting content one can imagine,” the papers said.
“Many people simply cannot imagine what Mr Soto had to view on a daily basis as most people do not understand how horrible and inhumane the worst people in the world can be.”
In an interview, conducted inside Microsoft at the time, Mr Soto was applauded by his managers for having “courage”. However, he confirmed that the effects of doing the work he did resulted in “panic attacks, disassociation, depression, visual hallucinations” as well him struggling to be in the proximity of children – to include his own son. If he was, it would trigger memories of “horribly violent acts against children that he had witnessed,” the court papers reported.
Mr Soto was told, after attempts to transfer to a new department in 2014, that he would be required to follow the same process of applying for work “just like any other employee”. Microsoft fought back saying: “If an employee no longer wishes to do this work, he or she will be assigned other responsibilities.”
The company also confirmed that staff in the Online Safety Team are placed on a “Wellness program”, which includes regular sessions with a counsellor.
A number of other steps are taken to minimise the effects of doing this work, the company confirmed. These include blurring images, reducing them to thumbnails and lowering the resolution of images.
“Employees are limited in how long they may do this work per day and must go to a separate, dedicated office to do it; they can’t do this work at home or on personal equipment.”
However, it has not been confirmed that potential employees are given a psychological assessment before commencing this work.
The lawsuit is not asking for a specific amount of compensation but also for safety considerations at Microsoft to be reviewed.
Microsoft has not yet given a formal response but has indicated to the BBC that it will oppose the lawsuit.
Photo credit: Amit Chattopadhyay